My affinity for quilts and fiber art stems directly from family influences. Lucie Gunter Kneece, my maternal grandmother who lived in South Carolina, was a skilled creator of the handmade lace known as tatting. She also spun her own yarn, and her hands were perpetually busy. Virginia Morgan Saunders, my paternal grandmother in western North Carolina, was a talented, prolific quilt maker and embroiderer. I was seven years old when our family moved from South to North Carolina, which meant that quilts trumped tatting in my genetic code as I learned quilt making and embroidery in Appalachia. By that time my grandmother was becoming elderly so my paternal aunt, Judith Saunders Herren, sat me down at the quilting frame and the sewing machine. These early influences were discussed in my segment of Simply Quilts (HGTV).
Like many young people of my generation in the late 1960s, I left the mountains at the age of eighteen to attend college in Chapel Hill, somewhat deracinating myself from the “old-fashioned” ways as I studied for a Ph.D. in comparative literature and Renaissance studies (awarded in 1978). However, even in those years, I gravitated toward displays of historic textiles and decorative art when visiting European museums. On visits to western North Carolina, I explored the various craft shops. After my two children were born (1971 and 1972), I phoned Aunt Judith to talk about quilts and began to think about making some crib quilts. [I should interject here that I had no knowledge then of the famous Whitney Museum quilt show of 1971.] My first quilt was a modest production in the Bowtie pattern, a pastel crib quilt using scraps from my husband’s discarded cotton shirts. It was pieced by machine and quilted by hand, with a large embroidery hoop. After making a few more quilts using patterns, I lost patience with following the rules and began experimenting with free-form appliqué and strip-piecing. But what I really wanted to do was to put actual images on my quilts. I just did not know how.
After a somewhat nomadic existence in academia that made it possible for me to see some great quilt exhibitions in Kentucky and Illinois, and to study painting for a year, we moved to New York City in 1979. By a stroke of luck, a few years later I located an old friend from Chapel Hill, Diane Neumaier, who was teaching photography. [She is now a professor at Rutgers University.] Diane wanted to experiment with printing images on fabric via cyanotype, or blueprints, and we had several long studio sessions during which I became hooked on the process. By 1990 my first cyanotype quilt was completed. That same year I discovered Phototextiles, a company operated by Aneta Sperber where color photographs were printed onto fabric. From there I never looked backed—almost all my quilts since then have used photographic imagery, although now I transfer or print the images myself. I studied studio art in workshops at the School of Visual Arts and Manhattan Graphics Center between 1991 and 1998, honing my printmaking skills.
During the years when we were rearing our children and paying for their education, I worked on my art while employed full-time in libraries and at Sotheby’s. The events in NYC on September 11th, 2001, caused me to reconsider my life. Realizing that I needed to be more involved with art and art history, I returned to graduate school and earned an M.A. in art history in 2004. Since then, I have been teaching art history and visual culture on a part-time basis, writing books and articles, critiquing and curating, and working in my studio.