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Michael James (quilt artist)

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Michael James (quilt artist)

Michael James (born 1949) is an American artist, educator, author, and lecturer. He is best known as a leader of the art quilt movement that began in the 1970s and is currently the Chair and Ardis James Professor of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design[1] at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.[2]

Early life and education

James was the first of seven children born to an English and French-Canadian Catholic family in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He attended a bilingual parochial school in St. Anthony's Parish in the 1950s and 1960s, and upon graduating from high school in 1967, enrolled at Southeastern Massachusetts University in the neighboring community of Dartmouth (now the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth), where he studied painting and printmaking.[3] His undergraduate education included a year-long program based on Josef Albers's Interaction of Color,[4] taught by Donald Krueger, which provided him with the foundation in color theory that prepared him for his later work as a colorist.[5]

After receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1971,[6] he moved to Rochester, New York, to attend graduate school at Rochester Institute of Technology,[3] concentrating again in painting and printmaking.[6] During the course of his two-year graduate program,[3] he married Judith Dionne,[7] a fellow art student from Southeastern Massachusetts University, and their son, Trevor, was born. Even as he pursued a degree in painting, his interest in the medium began to wane. Before the end of his master’s program, he had come to the conclusion that he had “nothing important to say in painting” and that the importance of painting in the art world was on the decline.[3] Within months after receiving his Master of Fine Art degree in 1973, he had stopped painting altogether.[8]

As his attraction to painting and printmaking dwindled, he grew increasingly fascinated by quiltmaking. He had experimented with quiltmaking as an undergraduate [3] and returned to it in the third semester of graduate school as a diversion from the stresses of his studies.[8] His growing enthusiasm for the medium in the early 1970s coincided with the increased national preoccupation with quiltmaking. As the United States emerged from the back-to-the-earth[9] and feminist movements of the 1960s, greater value was being placed on what had been traditionally considered the “domestic arts.”[10] The nation was also anticipating its Bicentennial in 1976, and the media was spotlighting American heritage and heirlooms[11] and popularizing interest in American history[10] and Americana.[11]

While quilts were being venerated as national treasures,[9] they were also being recognized as forerunners to the modern art movement. In the summer of 1971, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York exhibited the Amish quilt collection of Jonathan Holstein & Gail van der Hoof, a pivotal exhibition that raised the status of quilts to a fine art.[12] James attended a lecture by Holstein in 1973[13] and later said, “The idea that quilts can be art may not have occurred to me had I not seen Amish quilts.”[14]

In addition to the quiltmaking tradition, James was attracted to the geometric and abstract[15] patterns of quilt design.[16] There was plenty of fabric at hand, as Judy also sewed,[3] and he found that he preferred to work with fabric rather than paint.[17] The fact that he could quilt at home away from the toxic chemicals of the paint and print studio[3] while playing an active role in his infant son’s life was a “nice bonus,” he said.[16] He and Judy were soon making and selling small, patchwork items to bring in extra money.[18]

Early career

Basic quilting instructions were difficult to find in the early 1970s as quiltmaking had fallen out of vogue after World War II, and there were few people who practiced the craft.[10] James turned to two early quilt books for information and inspiration: The Standard Book of Quilt Making and Collecting by Marguerite Ickis, published in 1949[19] and Jean Ray Laury’s book, Quilts and Coverlets: A Contemporary Approach, published in 1970.[20] In his keynote address to the American Quilt Study Group in 2000, James credits Laury’s book as his “first introduction to the notion that quilts didn’t have to conform to some historical prescription” and with his “first awareness that there might be a place for experimentation and individual expression.”[21] Before exploring the expressive potential of quiltmaking, however, he became proficient in the technical aspects by creating numerous copies of traditional block patterns.[22]

In the summer of 1974, James and his family moved back to Somerset, Massachusetts,[3] twenty miles from his hometown of New Bedford,[23] where he briefly held a part-time position teaching art at his former high school.[3] He had hand-sewn several small quilts by this time and was working on his first full-size quilt, Meadow Lily.[24] In November of that year, he made his debut in Quilter’s Newsletter,[25] the first, and for many years only, magazine devoted to quiltmaking in the early 1970s.[26] He was pictured surrounded by his first reproduction quilts:[27] Lone Star, Birds-in-Air, Goose Tracks, and Wood Lily[25] (later called Meadow Lily).[28]

The growing nationwide interest in quiltmaking created a demand for quiltmaking teachers,[29] and in 1974, James pursued two opportunities to teach adult education classes in nearby communities in Massachusetts—at Bristol Community College in Fall River[3] and at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln[25] outside of Boston.[30] There was so much interest, in fact, that he divided his first class at the Bristol Community College into four classes to better accommodate the numbers.[3] Over the next five years, his semester-long quiltmaking courses expanded throughout eastern Massachusetts. In 1975 James found that he was able to earn a living entirely through quilt-related activities.[31]

Through his association with the DeCordova Museum, James discovered a group of like-minded artists from the Boston area.[31] Other academically-trained artists had also turned to quiltmaking,[22] several of whom participated in the June 1975 exhibition, “Bed and Board,” at the DeCordova, the third in a series of shows held in celebration of the Bicentennial and one of the first exhibits of non-traditional quilts in an accredited art museum.[32] James was one of the sixteen quiltmakers included in the show. He later acknowledged in an interview for the Smithsonian Institution that his two pieces, Meadow Lily and Razzle Dazzle, were the most traditional quilts in the show. The experience served as a catalyst for him, and thereafter he aspired to introduce more contemporary design into his own work.[31]

In an attempt to motivate other quilters to become more innovative as well, James wrote a letter to the editor of Quilter’s Newsletter, published in April 1976, proposing that the magazine put more emphasis on original quilt design and less on “traditional patchwork patterns.”[33] He continued, "We have reached the point in the present quilting revival where a great deal of discrimination as regards what is 'good' quiltmaking and quilt design must come into play."[34] The letter stirred up a debate that elicited an immediate response from over two hundred readers over the following three months, the majority of whom strongly defended the tradition and the status quo.[35]

James found a more supportive and sympathetic community of prominent writers and quiltmakers, like Jean Ray Laury and Jeffrey and Beth Gutcheon,[32] at the first major quilt symposium and exhibition[7] in Ithaca, New York, in August 1976—the Finger Lakes Bicentennial Quilt Exhibit.[36] He reconnected with them again in July of the following year, when he traveled farther afield to the Lincoln Quilt Symposium in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he delivered an address entitled, “Contemporary Quilt Art and Artists.”[37] The symposium that year attracted 600 attendees from forty states.[38]

In 1977, James’s first solo exhibition of quilts was shown at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts and included Tossed Salad, Razzle Dazzle, Elaborated Tangram, and Night Sky I.[7] With the exception of Night Sky I, the quilt tops were assembled with varied combinations of hand and machine piecing[39] using straight-edged shapes—squares, triangles, and trapezoids.[40] Night Sky I, however, was a whole cloth quilt that was quilted entirely with curvilinear lines.[39] Influenced by the work of Robert and Sonia Delaunay,[41] the sequel, Night Sky II, recreated the quilted lines of Night Sky I in a pieced top that incorporated curved seams, instead of straight-edged pieces, and marked a new approach in James’s technique and style.[42] The piece was selected for the “Young Americans: Wood, Plastic, Fiber, Leather” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City in the fall of 1977.[7][43] Over the next couple of years, James continued to explore the possibilities of curved piecing in three other quilts that became a part of his Sky series: Aurora, Moonshadow, and Dawn Nebula.[44] All were notable, as well, for having asymmetrical settings, despite the fact that they were assembled in the standard quilt block style.[45]

In the spring of 1977, James published a three-part series of articles in Quilter’s Newsletter, called “Color in Quilts”,[46] exploring principles that he covered in-depth in his workshops.[47] Shortly afterwards he was approached by Prentice Hall of Englewood, New Jersey, to write a book on quiltmaking.[7] Given that quiltmaking had been out of favor for several decades, there was a dearth of instructional materials for those who were anxious to learn the basics. The sudden resurgence created a great demand for how-to books.[48] James’s contribution, The Quiltmaker’s Handbook: A Guide to Design and Construction, published in 1978, focused on quilting fundamentals, giving equal treatment to both hand and machine techniques. It also deconstructed the grid system upon which quilt block patterns are based and emphasized the importance of “precision.”[49]

Artistic solidification period

As interest in quiltmaking took off, so did James’s career.[50] In 1978 he lectured and taught at the West Coast Quilter’s Conference in Portland, Oregon, where he was already considered a “well-known quilt personality,” according to an early report in Quilter’s Newsletter.[51] His quilt, Aurora, won the Judge’s Choice Award at the “Festival of Quilts” exhibit in Santa Rosa, California,[52] and he was awarded a Visual Artist’s Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts that year as well,[53] the first of three that he would receive from the NEA over the next twelve years.[54] In 1979 he served as one of three jurors who selected the entrees for the first Quilt National,[55] which became a biennial competition showcasing the "state of the art" in contemporary quiltmaking in Athens, Ohio. [56] By 2003, nine of James’s quilts would be included in seven Quilt National exhibitions.[57]

By 1979, James was traveling more extensively to teach short, intensive workshops rather than semester-long courses.[31] That year he was the recipient of a Craftsmen’s Fellowship from The Artists Foundation of Boston[58] for Dawn Nebula,[59] one of the five in the Sky series. [27]
Another of the series, Moonshadow, was sold that year to the Dual-Lite Corporation in Newtown, Connecticut,[60] and the IBM Corporation bought three other quilts in 1980 for their new building in Burlington, Vermont.[61] A year later he finished his first corporate commission piece, The Seasons, for the Waltham Federal Savings and Loan Association in Waltham, Massachusetts.[62]

Beginning in 1980, James began to create his own striped yardage by sewing strips of cotton[27] and silk[63] together in sets of graduated colors, a development that would drive his work for the next fifteen years.[64] The pieces for his quilt tops were cut from the stripped panels,[65] adding complexity to the repetitive block patterns.[27] The panels had to be assembled entirely by machine as the hand-sewn strips tended to unravel when cut across the seams. The quilting, which was sewn in the "ditch" between the strips, was also done by machine.[66]

In 1981 James published the sequel to his first instructional book, The Second Quiltmaker’s Handbook: Creative Approaches to Contemporary Quilt Design.[67] Using exercises from his workshops,[68] the book was thought to be for the “advanced” quiltmaker,[69] as James delved deeper into the theories and processes of designing original compositions.[70] It also detailed the technical aspects of curved seams and strip-piecing.[71] A book reviewer in Quilter’s Newsletter described it as “a textbook for the quiltmaker,” not a "picture" or "pattern" book.[68]

Strip-pieced quilts

Many consider strip-piecing to be James’s signature style.[72] His pieced panels eventually grew to encompass 36 strips of fabric, each measuring ¾ to 1 inch wide,[73] and were arranged in “luminous”[74] runs of graded color and value. The quilts themselves could include up to 150 different colors[73] with increasingly intricate compositions that required dozens of templates.[75] It was for this work, too, that he earned his reputation as a colorist.[5]

He began a new series called, Interweave, in 1982,[76] which hearkened back to the Sky series[77] with its exploration of the effects of light transitioning into darkness.[78] The themes for his work in the 80s focus on “natural phenomena”[79] as well as music and dance.[80] With a greater emphasis on formal issues,[74] his style became increasingly abstract[81] in the 1980s. Although the method James used to construct his quilts in the 80s was still block-style and grid-based,[82] he continued to incorporate curved seams within the blocks, as he liked their “fluidity” and “sensuality.”[83]

In the early 1980s, James took his workshops overseas for the first time, first to England and then, on subsequent trips, to France, Switzerland, Ireland, and Italy.[62] As many quilters did not have academic art backgrounds,[13] his courses emphasized design principles rather than quilting techniques.[84] In a survey conducted by Quilter’ Newsletter Magazine for their 15th anniversary issue, James was asked if he felt there were any “voids in the quilt community,” and he responded,

I feel that quiltmakers who wish to move away from copying traditional design or to begin to create their own original imagery need desperately to begin to build a background in general art history, and in the language of design and of color. No artist can develop without this grasp of the language and vocabulary of art.[85]

Through his teaching he aimed to encourage quilters in their own design work by “demystifying color and pattern.”[86]

In the fall of 1983, James had his first major exhibition.[87] A ten-year retrospective of his work, which was described as “dazzling” in FiberArts magazine,[27] was shown at the Worcester Craft Center in Worcester, Massachusetts.[62] A writer for Worcester’s Sunday Telegram reported that at this early point in James’s career, he had already “achieved international recognition for elevating the craft of quilt making to high art.”[87] James helped to reinforce the notion of quilt-as-art by curating a concurrent show that featured ten other quiltmaking artists, called “Fabric Constructions: The Art Quilt.”[88]

In 1984 James completed the largest commission that he had produced up to that point. Air Structure, created for IBM in [89] The following year, in the same New York Times article in which Ulysses Dietz, the curator of decorative arts for the Newark Museum in New Jersey, described the institution’s acquisition policy -- “The criterion is quality. That means not only technical excellence, but also distinctive style.”—Dietz announced that the museum had commissioned a piece from James for their permanent collection.[90] The result was the first in the Rhythm/Color series, Rhythm/Color: Spanish Dance.[62] It was also the first quilt in which James began to deliberately blur the edges of the block structure. [91]
Rhythm Color Spanish Dance

The second of the series, Rhythm/Color: The Concord Cotillion, was included in the inaugural exhibition, “Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical,” at the new [95] by reaching out to a wider audience.[96] Twenty-five works by sixteen artists were exhibited at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in September 1986[97] and toured for the next two years.[98] Robert Shaw described “The Art Quilt” exhibition as the “first major curated exhibit of its kind,” as it “defined the cutting edge of the new movement and identified its leading practitioners.”[97]

As James’s work progressed through the mid to late 1980s, the grid composition in his designs became increasingly obscure.[99] He strove to eliminate the traditional quilt block construction method from his work completely, as he felt that it was becoming “too predictable.” By 1988, his quilts were still designed upon a gridded foundation, but the construction of the quilt tops no longer relied upon square blocks. The shapes were more irregular.[100] Between 1986 and 1989, he experimented with the overall silhouette of the quilt, as well, breaking out of the standard, rectangular format. [101] He had made a small series of Suntreader quilts in the late 70s that were circular in shape,[102] but the quilts of the late 80s took greater liberties with the frame.[103] His work was being described by newspapers and magazine articles of the time as “spacially complex," “airy”,[74] and “full of light and movement.”[104]

In 1988 he was awarded a second fellowship from the Boston Artist’s Foundation and another from the National Endowment for the Arts,[54] which he used to expand his studio space.[105] He had his first European exhibit that year, as well. “Michael James: Nouveaux Quilts” was shown at Galerie Jonas in Petit-Cortaillod, Switzerland,[62] a gallery to which he would return five times over the next two decades.[106][107]

Artist's block

Despite his continuing success—teaching and lecturing in Japan for the first time, completing Sky/Wind Variations for the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company,[62] and exhibiting his work for the second time in Switzerland[108]—by 1990, James said that he experienced a “crisis of confidence.” He was concerned that he had taken the strip-piecing as far as it could go, and he was doubtful that he would continue to make quilts.[109] He felt confined by their limits of geometry.[110]

That year, however, he received his third grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a USA/France Exchange Fellowship. He spent three months, September to December, in an artists’ residency in La Napoule, France,[54] where he devoted his time to working with oil pastels and crayons on paper and returning to the lessons of art school. He credits this brief hiatus from quiltmaking and the resultant drawings with the breakthrough he made upon his return to his studio in the following year. He was able to resume strip-piecing, and by 1992, he had found a way to escape the grid structure.[41]

Strip-pieced quilts independent of the grid

James describes the quilts he made between 1992 and 1995 as a “last hurrah” for the strip-pieced panel technique, and it is for the work that he produced during this period that he is best known.[111] David Lyon and Patricia Harris wrote in Art & Inspiration: Michael James that the quilts from this period “capture the artist at the height of his form.”[72] Beginning with Bourrée[112] and Lush Life,[113] James arrived upon a strategy that allowed for greater freedom of design. The shapes were looser, more fluid and more dynamic.[82] In Art Quilt, Robert Shaw describes the quilt surfaces as being “built from graffiti-like forms”[73] that are “large, interlocking” and “abstract” and have moved beyond the “repeating motif.”[114]

In 1992 James was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, his alma mater, and the following year, he was the 25th person to be inducted into the Quilter’s Hall of Fame in Marion, Indiana.[115] In 1994, he sold Quilt No. 150: Rehoboth Meander to the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.[54] He was also one of four artists chosen out of 160 entrants for the Society of Arts and Crafts of Boston’s Master-in-Crafts Award.[116]

By 1995 he was spending twelve to fourteen weeks a year traveling in Europe and Japan to teach workshops and give lectures.[117] James thought of Switzerland, in particular, as his "second home," as he had taught there every year since 1981.[118] In the summer of 1995, he had a third solo exhibition at Galerie Jonas in Switzerland, which coincided with the release of a retrospective[119] monograph of his work, Michael James: Studio Quilts.[120][54] The book included essays and large photos of his quilt-building process, as well as photographs of the individual quilts.[121] He was one of five American artists invited to exhibit in the 8th International Triennial of Tapestry[122] that year in Lodz, Poland, and his piece, The Metaphysics Of Action: Entropic Forms won a juror’s citation.[54]

By 1995, the surge of creative energy that had been generated by his residency in France was ebbing, however, and James was returning to the conclusion that he had finally “exhausted the possibilities” of strip-piecing.[82] He was concerned that he had nothing new to say, and the technical complexity of his work had become too daunting.[123] He was ready to take his quilts in a new direction.[82]


It was during a teaching tour through Europe[54] in 1995 that James happened upon an image during a visit to the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway, that suggested that new direction. He was struck by the power and strength of the simple, yet bold, black and white crosses in the vestments of the St. Nicolas icons from Russia.[124] They reminded him of the Amish quilts that had inspired him for similar reasons in the beginning of his quilting career.[125]

The first work of his new series, Icon, was produced in 1996 and signaled a radical shift in style.[126] No longer were color and complexity the subject of his work.[5] By the summer of 1997, he had completed five more quilts in the series.[127] The new quilts were characterized by very limited color palettes and a narrow range of design motifs[73] and were constructed from separate, discordant panels. In an article in FiberArts magazine in 1998, he was quoted as saying, “I felt that my work had become too unrealistically harmonious.”[128] Initially he introduced wool fabric [73] and embroidered elements into his work,[128] then he brought in hand-painted fabric[129] from “Skydyes,” a Connecticut company[130] owned by Mickey Lawler. With her fabric, he sought to achieve a “more organic aesthetic.”[131]

The response to his new style was mixed,[128] but James received several honors for his continuing achievements as the century came to a close. In the spring of 1999, the Museum of the American Quilter’s Society in Paducah, Kentucky, featured a 25-year retrospective of his work,[132] and later that summer, he returned to Galerie Jonas in Switzerland for a fourth solo exhibition of new work, called “Iconographies.”[129] At the end of 1999, a book of one hundred of The Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts was published. Two of James’s quilts had been selected: Aurora from 1978 and Rhythm/Color: Improvisation from 1985.[133] In early 2000, Rhythm/Color: Spanish Dance was chosen as one of the “Top Treasures of the Century” by Art & Antiques magazine, which quotes Ulysses Dietz of the Newark Museum as saying, “Michael James is ‘the single most important figure in the transformation of the quilt from a folk art to a fine art in the late 20th century.’”[134]

In the late 1990s, James became increasingly involved with activities at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He served on the advisory board of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum,[135] which had been founded at the university in 1997 by long-time collectors of his work, Ardis and Robert James of Chappaqua, New York.[136] (The 950 quilts in the original Ardis and Robert James Collection[137] included twelve quilts by James.)[138] He taught short, summer workshops through the university,[139] and in 1999 he was offered a full-time position as a senior lecturer in the Textiles, Clothing and Design Department[140] (now the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design).[141] It gave him the opportunity to integrate art theory and fabric construction within a collegiate textile program,[5] and made him the first quilt artist to hold a professorship in quilt studies.[11] He accepted in 2000, moved his Massachusetts studio to Nebraska[142] and started teaching in the fall of 2000.[139] His course load included visual literacy, textile design, and quilt studies.[143]

Digital quilts

Before James left Massachusetts, he had begun a quilt called, Scan, that incorporated an embroidered drawing of an MRI scan of his brain.[144] When, in early 2002, the textile department at the University of Nebraska acquired a textile printer, a Mimaki TX-1600X, that could print dye on fabric up to 60 inches wide, [145] he converted the brain scan back into a digital image and printed it on fabric. The scan reappeared in James’s first digitally printed quilts -- Mind’s Eye and A Strange Riddle—in the spring of 2002[144] taking his work in yet another direction.[146]

He experimented with digital imagery and produced his own fabric using images from photographs that he modified in CAD programs, like Photoshop and Illustrator.[147] The subjects varied from textured walls and graffiti,[148] to fish, faces, leaves and grass,[142] particularly from his trips to Japan. The quilts were assembled in a fashion similar to the pieces in his Icon-era, using distinct, often “visually paradoxical” panels.[149] They had become less formal and more “poetic."[150]

In 2004, James expanded his digital fabric designs to a mass market when he created two collections for Donna Wilder’s FreeSpirit fabric company.[151] His ColorStripes line mimicked his strip-pieced panels of the 80s and 90s.[152] At the end of 2007, he was recognized by Karey Bresenham, the cofounder of Quilts, Inc.,[153] at the International Quilt Festival in Houston with the Silver Star Award, an honor given annually to those who have made contributions to the quilting field.[154] In addition to referencing his role as a scholar and teacher, Bresenham said, “His stunning work has inspired countless artists to stretch their talents and try new approaches to creating quilts.”[155]

In the mid-2000s James became Chair of the textile department at the University of Nebraska,[156] the home of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum.[143] Despite his increased academic responsibilities, he was able to maintain an active studio with the help of assistants from the university.[157][154] In an article reviewing the exhibition, “Hand Craft: A Decade of Digital Quilts”, at Metropolitan Community College near Omaha[158] in 2010, Kent Wolgamott noted that a decade after James had moved to Nebraska, he had created nearly 100 quilts using digitally-developed fabric.[142]


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