Over the years, many of you have had the pleasure of interacting with our cofounder, Penny McMorris, either at quilt shows or when you called in to our support line with a question. And many of you also know the story of how Penny and Dean created the first version of Electric Quilt (if you don’t, you can learn more about it here). But did you know how Penny helped to support contemporary quilt artists and about her contributions to the creation of the International Quilt Museum?
The International Quilt Museum is home to the world’s largest publicly held quilt collection with the mission to build a global collection and audience that celebrate the cultural and artistic significance of quilts. The IQM was established in June 1997 when Ardis and Robert James donated nearly 1,000 quilts to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is celebrating their 25th anniversary this month! Penny was invited to be the keynote speaker at the 25th anniversary celebration and also contributed to the catalog of the museum’s 25th anniversary show.
The International Quilt Museum is especially near and dear to this EQ employee’s heart as it was one of the places that supported my doctoral dissertation research when I was a graduate student. So I was thrilled to learn more about Penny’s connections to the IQM and to share that information with you!
Penny’s love of quilting started when she was little. She says “I remember when quite young playing with fabric and being fascinated with the effect caused by putting one print fabric next to another.” Penny made her first quilts in the 1960s, inspired by the arts and crafts movement and magazines that featured quilts and patchwork clothing: “By the late 1960s, as a few quilts began appearing in Vogue and home décor magazines, along with patchwork clothing, I was already interested in both antique quilts and art history, so my interest in seeing if my contemporaries were making quilts felt natural.”
She quickly realized that what excited her the most was “seeing, and showing others, what other quiltmakers were creating…thanks to Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine (first published in 1969) I was able to discover new work by dozens of artists I admired and ask them for slides.”
Penny really wanted to see these new contemporary quilts in person, so she organized a quilt show, called Ohio Patchwork ’76, in Bowling Green, OH: “I was so eager to see new work by my contemporaries that I thought if I (and my assistant, my 10 year old daughter Erin) could create an exhibition for quilts made in the previous 5 years, and limit it to Ohio residents so the task would not overwhelm me, that I would find artist quilt makers. So, I got an NEA grant, with assistance from a BGSU History Professor. The show opened at the Bowling Green State University Art Gallery. And with the help of the Ohio Department of Travel and Tourism I found other venues in Columbus, Dayton, and Cleveland. I chose about 25 quilts myself from the entries I received. That was how I first saw quilts by Nancy Crow and other young artists who I later got to know well.”
In the hopes of sharing contemporary quilt artists with as many people as possible, Penny pitched the idea of a TV show to the local PBS station, WBGU. A year later the station gave her the green light and Penny got to share these quilts and artists with an even larger audience! “The 1981 series had 26 shows, and the 1991 series had 13. After I got over my complete terror of the TV cameras, I loved every minute of planning the shows, and interviewing artists and historians, like traveling to Lawrence, Kansas to talk to Barbara Brackman about her then new Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns (3rd edition now available from EQ). The local PBS station making the shows, WBGU-TV, was amazing. They never said no to any idea. So we traveled all over the country talking to quilt makers, and taping them at work, and that was really my favorite part. I was amazed that quilt interest was spreading world-wide, so the shows aired in Great Britain, Australia, and Japan.”
Check out some of Penny’s episodes of The Great American Quilt on WBGU’s YouTube!
Penny was first introduced to Robert (Bob) and Ardis James by quilt artist, Michael James (no relation). As the Corporate Art Curator for Owens-Corning Corporation, and through her various correspondence with quilt artists, Penny was well positioned to assist Robert and Ardis with their burgeoning collection of historic and contemporary quilts.
Penny says that she helped the Jameses purchase approximately 100 quilts from roughly 25 artists and remembers their meetings fondly, “It was almost always Ardis I’d meet with. I’d fly to New York City, take the train to Chappaqua, be met by Ardis at the station and driven to their home. She was a delightful woman, very good-humored, generous, open to new ideas and wanting to share her love of quilts with others, and in so doing perhaps inspire them to begin collecting. In between our visits we shared letters and slides by mail, including New Yorker cartoons she would send…. I remember the fun Dean and I had because of their generosity. They began sponsoring a dinner for all the artists attending the opening of each Quilt National in Athens, Ohio, and always included us. It was a great and fun way to meet new artists and see old friends, as well as meet with Ardis and Bob.”
Of the many pieces that she assisted Robert and Ardis in acquiring, Penny says she has three favorites, all of which are now a part of the collections at the International Quilt Museum: Dashboard Saints: In Memory of St. Christopher (who lost his magnetism) by Terrie Mangat, The Women: Mask Face Quilt #1 and The Men: Mask Face Quilt #2 both by Faith Ringgold.
Carolyn Ducey, the Ardis B. James Curator of Collections at the International Quilt Museum, sums up Penny’s impact on the contemporary quilt movement, “Penny McMorris’ impact on the studio quilt movement is immeasurable. She recognized the quality of work created by giants in the quilt world. Pauline Burbidge, Nancy Crow, Michael James, Therese May, and Jan Myers-Newbury are just a few of the artists whose work Penny suggested for the Ardis and Robert James Collection. Penny helped create opportunities for these artists that enabled them to continue their creative work at an early, pivotal time in their career and launched them on a national stage. The team of Penny McMorris and Robert and Ardis James were the first studio art collectors and their influence is easily recognized still today.”
To hear more of Penny’s stories and learn more about Robert and Ardis James and their impact on quilt history and contemporary quilt artists, you can watch a recording of her keynote address during the IQM’s 25th anniversary celebration.
If you want to learn even more about the founding of the IQM and the James collection (with mentions of Penny), you can also watch this discussion between curator Carolyn Ducey, former director Patricia Cox Crews, Ann Dillow Crowley, and Merikay Waldvogel.
Finally, the IQM has put many of the key works collected by Robert and Ardis on display. If you cannot visit the show and the quilts in-person, you can view it virtually on the museum’s website.
Have you been to the International Quilt Museum, or do you remember watching Penny’s shows on PBS? Tell us about your experiences and memories in the comments!