The Mary Fons Interview

4Q3KXIhSF1DgQIw7KttVxUyBMP4c4dizlNK7WvNgmpA.jpegOne of the things I like about my full-time job at the University of Chicago is that I actually get a salary and benefits to do things I like to do in my freelance, "creative" life, such as interview interesting people. My husband read alongside today's interviewee at The Paper Machete and told me I needed to check her out, as she's simultaneously a writer/performer, quilting-world superstar and a graduate student at UChicago. So I interviewed her for UChicago's Magazine. You can find a condensed, slightly more UChicago-centered version of the interview here, and below find the longer version of our discussion. You can read more about her and her many projects at her site here. Meanwhile, you can pre-order her book, Make & Love Quilts: Scrap Quilts for the 21st Century, here.

What do you love most about quilting? The process? The finished product? The social aspect of it? (I know absolutely nothing about quilting so there may be lots of other parts that are great.)
Making a quilt is an exercise in meditation, creation, and compassion, which might sound a little woo-woo, but it's true: the act of sewing patchwork facilitates this pleasant, quiet headspace; when you're done with your quilt, you have created something entirely new that wasn't there before; because most quilters end up giving their quilts away, you have an act of love and/or compassion to give to someone -- and everyone needs a quilt.

You come from quilting stock but I read that you did not always intend to pursue quilting the way you ultimately have. What did you originally pursue as a primary interest, and what ultimately drew you back into the family business?
I'm a writer first, then a performer, then a quilter. I was a full-time freelancer for many years, writing textbooks, scripts, articles, etc., for various educational software companies, syndication people, etc. I've kept a diary since I was a kid and I've been writing my blog, PaperGirl since '06 with really only one significant interruption. My foundation as a human is as a writer.

I was an active ensemble member of the Neo-Futurists from 2006 to early 2012; I did Too Much Light and I wrote a one-woman show (with backup dancers!) for the Prime Time season in 2011. I currently perform at live lit shows around town like Paper Machete, Write Club, etc. My BA is actually in Theater (University of Iowa, '01). I also still sort of identify as a poet; I slammed from about 2002-2006 on slam stages locally, (at the Green Mill, which is where I hung out every Sunday night for a long time) and nationally (on tours, at several National Poetry Slams, etc.) Slam is excellent training for a writer-performer. You get stage time every night, you audition/refine new work constantly, you see great touring artists, and you see plainly what sucks and what you should never, ever do. Ever. Like talk about your genitals in verse.

My mother is a very famous quilter. The quilt industry is a 3.5 billion dollar industry in the U.S. and she's been a big player for over 25 years. I always saw quilts as beautiful and awesome, but they were primarily something Mom did for work. I distanced myself from quilting and never considered the quilt industry because I had to do my own thing. I started making quilts about four years ago. I got really sick with ulcerative colitis and I got married and then I got divorced. It was an intense period of a lot of pain and reflection at relatively tender age. Suddenly, making a quilt was exactly what I felt I needed to do. When life as you know it is torn into a zillion pieces, it just makes sense to tear up fabric into a zillion pieces and then sew it back together again into organized blocks with a nice French-fold binding.

Around the time I was bitten by the quilting bug, I was a guest on my mom's show on PBS, "Love of Quilting." I was good at it, having the theater background; they had me back. When Mom's business partner retired/co-host, they asked me to come on more officially and I did, around 2010. Around the same time, I started Quilty, an online show for the beginner quilter. It's once a week, 52 weeks a year on I am now the editor of Quilty magazine, a national magazine for the beginner quilter, which works in conjunction with the show. It comes out every other month and is owned by New Track Media. We're entering our fourth year of the show, third year of the magazine, which feels great. My first book, "Make + Love Quilts: Scrap Quilts For the 21st Century" is being released this spring (C&T Publishing.)

Working in the quilt industry is just totally kick-ass. Incredible Americans (mostly women) have created an extraordinary world of art, craft, business, community, relationships and a continuing history -- it's incredible. It's also more lucrative than theater and I have a thing for Celine handbags, so...

Why are you at UChicago's Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies?
I'm a nerd. I have always been a nerd, always will be. The most fun I can think of having -- well, the most fun I can think of having that I can actually tell you about here -- is being in a classroom and talking about the great book everyone read. Writing a paper is sexy. Research is hot. I love to learn. The quilting industry is lovely and making quilts challenges me creatively, but intellectually, I was needing something.

For me, the MLA program is just as perfect as it gets. I wanted to do graduate work, wanted to learn, wanted to dive more deeply into...well, everything. And that was the problem. My thirst for knowledge and my crazy love of inquiry in general was stalling me: should I get a graduate degree in philosophy? Literature? Art history? I love it all and felt like I could do anything I wanted to with proper focus, but I didn't want to focus on just one thing. I wanted to be a Renaissance person, good at all kinds of things. Then I found the MLA program and it was like, bam! That's it. I could study more deeply a range of material, go deeper and dip my little inquiry wand into all kinds of things and apply those to the others, etc. It was made for me, this program, and it's so cool that other people think it was made for them!

Nerds unite!

What's the difference between modern quilting and the more traditional style?
If traditional quilts match the decor in Martha Stewart magazines, modern quilts match the decor in Dwell. Both styles are beautiful, both styles borrow from the other liberally, but they do fit different personalities, different makers. In so-called modern quilts you have more graphically daring shapes, solid fabrics (as opposed to few solids, more prints) and there is a distinctly "today" palette -- more mango and mint, less hunter green and dusty rose, if that makes sense.

How has quilting changed or modernized in your lifetime?
Quilters are early adapters. We were on the Internet early, sharing pictures of our quilts and creating virtual quilting bees, etc. We are open to embracing new technology that helps us make quilts faster. That's the myth about the quilter, that she's this patient, even plodding old lady. Very wrong. Quilters are obsessive about making quilts and we're impatient as hell: we want to make a quilt as fast as we can so we can make the next one. We like efficiency and speed, so we are fast to jump on the latest machine, cutting tool, etc.

It kills me when people learn I use a sewing machine to make my quilts and their faces fall. They're like, "Oh. So you didn't do it all by hand." That is "by hand." Piecing a quilt top with a needle and thread is possible, of course, and people do it. But it's sort of like sending a letter to a friend to ask if she wants to have coffee sometime this week. Just text her. It doesn't make going to coffee less special and my goodness, way faster.

What do non-quilters not know about the quilting community?
Most non-quilting people ask me the same thing: "How much do you sell your quilts for?" but I don't make quilts to sell. I teach other people how to make them. Most people don't know how much a handmade quilt, a new, well-made one is really worth. A king-size quilt, with material and labor, could cost you $2000, depending. I like to say that most people who want a homemade quilt would have trouble affording one, but if you know a quilter who loves you, you'll get one for free. Quilters love to give quilts to our loved ones. That's pretty much the reason we make quilts in the first place.

People also don't realize how huge and dynamic the industry is. I mentioned, I think, the 3.5 billion/annually. It's just an enormous, healthy industry. A successful designer told me recently that no matter what the economy does, "women will always spend money on their hair and their hobby." It's true; the quilt industry isn't recession proof, but it's pretty close. And the whole thing is driven by women. Very inspiring.

Oh, we're not all older. The average age of the quilter in American is 49.

You also work with your sister as well as your mom: what advice do you have for people when it comes to working with family?
I almost began to answer this commenting on how it's unusual to work with a parent. But while in this country at this time I think fewer people than ever are working within a family business or with their family members, you still have huge numbers of people who do -- in the trades, in firms, and in small businesses, of course. So my experience working closely with my mother might not be as unusual as I feel it is, sometimes.

Working with my mom is mostly rewarding, inspiring, and easy. She's my mom. I grew in her womb. We speak in the shortest shorthand there is, I'd guess. But of course it's weird, sometimes, because you have a co-lecturer or a co-star (that sounds weird, but true, in terms of the show on PBS) and there will always be a bit of "You interrupted me again" or "We're waiting for you!!" or some such typical work annoyance. When it's your mom, it's work annoyance-plus-daughter-mom-annoyance and that can put you into your head with some weird Freudian fears/preoccupations that are probably a waste of time.

I guess I'd offer a word of warning: it will change your relationship to your parent/sibling when you sign on to work together. Mom and I are not (and never will be again) simply mother and daughter. We are co-workers and that affects the way we see each other and relate to each other. I have two sisters and neither of them work closely with Mom, so it changes our sibling dynamic, too, vis a vis our mother. I spend more time with Mom. I see her at work, not just at holidays and when we're home. It's all very interesting. Oh, and working with my sister is just straight up fun. She's so much cooler than me.

How does it feel to be the 373rd person interviewed for
I like that number, 373. That seven is nestled snugly between the two threes. I feel good about being interviewed by you, Mrs. Zulkey. You were personable and thorough.