Why Quilts Matter –
Question & Answer with Jack Edson
What do you get when you combine a self-taught sewer (in kindergarten), the meticulous precision of a professional librarian, and hundreds of tiny bits of fabric? You get Jack Edson, collector of all things folk art, Americana, and remarkable portrait quilt artist.
Jack studied art history and completed his Master of Library Science at the University of Rhode Island, and is the director of the newly expanded Hamburg Public Library (where quilts, of course, are on display) in Hamburg, New York. He began quilting in 1976 when he saw two exhibits of antique quilts, one from the Smithsonian Museum that was traveling across the United States. “I loved quilts at first sight, wanted to own quilts, and started making them to have a collection of quilts.”
In addition to working full time, Jack teaches his technique of using a grid, color and tonal value to make realistic images of faces and figures in patchwork. We spoke with Jack about collecting both Americana and bits of fabric, and his process for creating these portraits.
You collect a variety of things – what attracted to those types of items?
I am often attracted to the age of an item, from antiquities to the Nineteenth Century. I like to have items that people used in their daily lives many years ago.
You mentioned that you are inspired and influenced by the artist Chuck Close. Can you tell us more?
I love portraits, and Chuck Close creates huge portraits of his art friends. In many cases, he uses a grid pattern. This grid keeps the shape of the portrait intact, but each square can be a wild little work of art in itself.
Tell us a little about how you get started on a piece, your work process.
First, Like Chuck Close, I have to pick a subject that I like very much as I will be working with that image for months. I love art history, so I try to select a portrait of someone who I probably would like to know, if they were alive today.
I do not organize my fabric. It is mostly mixed up. I might put a few similar colors near each other but it does not stay that way for long.
I usually approach the fabric selection two opposite ways: I start with the fabric. If I like certain pieces and want to use them, they end up in the quilt. Second, I can pretty much visualize which color is needed for a certain space- it should be “pinkish” for example, and it should be light but not too light, and then find where that color is in the fabric pile mess!
I do try to work in certain fabrics into most every quilt. There is a yellow fabric that you could almost identify my quilts by. Also, I kept a number of my mother’s blouses when she died. They are good for flesh tones in faces and they certainly remind me of her when I am working.
Where and how do you find fabric in so many shades and colors to create what you make?
I haunt sale racks in fabric stores, people give me fabric again and again, I buy most of my clothes at second hand stores and with plans to reuse the fabric in quilts when I am done wearing the clothes.
When my old quilter, Margaret Carl, died this past February, her family told me I could take whatever I wanted of her fabric stash. This bonanza greatly enriched the colors in my last piece. We always encouraged each other to go wild with the color in our quilts and I think of her when I use her fabrics.
Our Quilt Guy group plays a game each time we meet. Everyone brings 5 or 10 fat quarters and one person wins over 50 fat quarters. I won the first time I met these guys, and I certainly think of them, and their support out there, when I use that fabric.
What is next for you?
I am offering classes in my portrait technique and it feels like my work is attracting a lot of attention from people in the quilt world as well people in the art world. These portrait pieces are conceived as works or art, rather than quilts per se, so I see them closer to paintings or collages than traditional quilts.
Still, I must contradict what I just said. In my last few pieces, the strong quilt block patterns seem to be holding their own against the realistic portrait images. I think this symbolizes my life; there always seem to be two opposite forces working at the same time. We remember that the old quilting bees were social events which brought people together as they worked on their quilts. That is what I need in my life, these social connections, and I think these portrait quilts put a strong face on a gallery wall.
More About Jack Edson
Photos curtesy Jack Edson