I knew I had a difficult task ahead of me when my undergraduate thesis advisor informed me that my research on the history of the art quilting movement should focus on only a few innovative quilt artists. There were so many to choose from and narrowing my focus wasn’t easy, but selecting M. Joan Lintault was a no brainer. Joan has been making art quilts for over three decades and their web-like construction, large scale, and often rich colors are awe-inspiring and utterly original. While recently visiting the exhibition “Masters: Art Quilts: Major works by leading artists” (which is featured in our February/March 2010 issue), at its current venue, the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, MA, I saw one of Joan’s pieces and was immediately reminded of what intrigued me about her work the first time around. Fortunately, she had the chance to catch up with me yet again to discuss her distinctive working method and long involvement in the history of the art quilting movement.
Your work has such an unusual construction. How did you arrive at this style?
In the mid-1980s, I received a Fulbright grant to research dyes in Japan. I needed something to do with the dyes so I started cutting stencils and I realized that I loved the negative spaces that they create. I wanted to do something that would give the same feeling.
But I had started making quilts even earlier; I made my first in 1969. At the time, there were a few of us that were doing this; the term ‘art quilting’ wasn’t even around—it was just called fiber art. I also have a background in ceramics which influenced some of my earlier work. When I first started, I did these all-white, highly quilted wall hangings. That was my way of transitioning from ceramics to quilting. I was afraid of color—but that didn’t last.
It must have been amazing to be a part of this movement in its earlier stages.
Yes, but it was also hard. Back then, it was much more difficult to find materials. There weren’t even dyes that you could easily use at home. I had to go on a quest to track down fiber-reactive dyes, and finally found them at the first Surface Design Association Conference in 1976. Now, I always print and dye my own fabrics since I have to have my own colors. I can’t be dependent on changing styles and patterns, or whatever is in fashion. I try to make my fabric reflect whatever the concept of my quilt is. I also don’t want to be too dependent on outside sources for my materials since these can disappear or availability can change, so I mix my own paints.
Could you briefly take us through the steps of your quilt construction?
I dye my fabrics several times to get real depth of color, and then screen print on top. Then I cut out the individual elements, sit down on my comfy sofa, and hand paint each one. I create little sandwiches with batting and backing, sew around the edges with a sewing machine, and cut out the shape again. Then I zigzag stitch the edges so I have all these little pillow-like shapes. I pin them to my design wall—which is huge; I need a ladder to reach the top—and start gradually sewing them together by machine.
Naturally, each piece is a little different and I work with several techniques. Sometimes I create sewing machine lace and use this to connect and suspend the different elements. A long time ago, I found a book that was printed in the early 1900s about how to create all kinds of lace on the sewing machine, and I decided to try it. Of course, it was far too difficult so I came up with my own way of doing it. I love the effect of laciness.
You work on a very large scale. Is there a particular reason for this?
Often, I have something I want to say and I simply can’t do it in a small piece. On the other hand, I have started to make things smaller as I get older since it’s hard to climb the ladder that I keep by my design wall—and I’m finding more and more that what I have to say can be accomplished in a smaller size. It’s very, very hard to go up and down the ladder, and pin all the little pieces on the wall. I had one quilt on the wall for two years because I got sick, and I just didn’t have the energy required to complete it. I plan on finishing it up soon—once I’ve finished my taxes. Right now, I feel like I have a whole bunch of things flying around in the air, waiting to land.
The larger pieces can take quite a toll on me. “Four Rivers” consists of four individual quilts which are each 18 feet long by 11 feet wide. They took me four years to complete. They were just so huge and the physical strength required to push them through my machine was too much at times. I have a semi-industrial Bernina on a power table, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.
The subject matter of your quilts varies quite a bit, from abstract to representations of nature, and even the human body. What inspires your subjects?
I like to base my work on some kind of historical trend so I spend a lot of time looking at old fabrics and textiles. Sometimes I’ll have an idea that I won’t even execute until 30 years later.
“Uncoiling Snakes” was inspired by a lecture I attended at an art museum in India in early 1979, but I didn’t make this quilt until 20 years later. The lecture was about palampores, which are textiles that contain elaborate representations of trees and flowers. I was so blown away by what the lecturer was saying that I decided to make my own. In 1996, I finally finished this quilt.
I’ve also been inspired by subjects that surround me. “The Garden of Milk” represents a fence in my sister’s garden. When I visited her in Illinois, I slept in a back room with a window looking out over her vegetable garden where there was a fence with all different kinds of wires, branches, and leaves. I kept thinking: I have to make a quilt of that.
You’ve been quilting for many years; how has your style and process evolved over time?
It changes in little ways that no one can tell. I don’t concentrate on style, but I do concentrate on themes; I change the subject matters of pieces. Generally, I use the same way of putting things together, but the images and colors evolve. One of my themes is lacey, another is natural like “Uncoiling Snakes.” I’m currently working on a quilt of a broken mirror. This one is also constructed with the tiny pillow shapes, but the way it’s put together at the end stages may change. Often, the final construction is like an engineering problem; making the pieces lay flat can be very, very difficult.
Also, when I first started, I felt like I was fighting with techniques. It was really difficult—the inks that were available for screen printing were so toxic that they gave me a huge headache. When people started selling water-based inks, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Digital imagery was so much more difficult to achieve. You had to go into a dark room to process photo transparencies. Then computers came along! I no longer feel like I’m fighting with techniques, and I will never do it again. We’ve come quite a long way.
Images of Quilts (from top to bottom)
“Heavenly Bodies” • 81" x 84"
“Four Rivers” (instalation) • four pieces, each 11' x 18'
“Uncoiling Snakes” • 81.5" x 81.5"
“Garden of Milk” • 81.5" x 74.5"
To see more of Joan's work, visit her website.