Michael James is a well known and respected American quilter. His reputation is based on strip pieced quilts, such as RC-Bacchanale. The first reaction of many quilters to these pieces is admiration of his technical ability to piece so accurately and to be in awe of his use of colour. Recently, Michael’s work has been moving in a new direction, using digitally printed textiles.
 
RC- Bacchanale
RC- Bacchanale

STARTING OUT

Michael trained as a painter, but was seduced by quilts over thirty years ago. His first quilt is inspiration to all of us. It is made of velvet and is tied. It also shows that quality quilting takes a lot of time, experience and practise. He works almost exclusively in quilts. He does some drawing, but as an aid to quilt making, not as an end in itself. Michael offered the following advice for readers wanting to take their first steps in designing their own quilts: “Look at the context: what’s been done, what’s being done, and recognize that starting from square one, it’s uphill from that point. At the same time, I think the best strategy is to be honest about one’s skills and abilities but likewise, to enjoy the process. Beginner’s mind is good, as it’s open and optimistic – anything is possible.”

DIGITAL QUILTS

Ghost Figure
Ghost Figure
 
Michael is currently using digitally printed textiles in his work. While this may seem like a major change, his adamant that is was just progress: “Quiltmakers and quiltmaking have always adapted to new technologies, and this goes back to the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, and earlier in fact (take the block printing of fabric, and what that must have meant to stitchers interested in amplifying the decorative quality of their work). Adopting digital processes is part of the natural course of things and I don’t find it that significant; what’s perhaps more surprising is that the quilt world would find it so remarkable. ”
 
Although it seems easy – take photo, print on fabric – to create work with the level of craftsmanship that Michael displays, is more complicated and time consuming. I was curious as to whether he felt it took him away from the fabric and to spend more time on the computer. “I do spend significant amounts of time in front of a computer screen. I find what the computer can do, what specific softwares like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator can do, to be quite exhilarating. Sure, sometimes it’s frustrating and sometimes it absorbs a disproportionate amount of time, especially when one is learning the software, but it opens amazingly varied and potentially expressive avenues that would be achieved differently, if at all, by other means.”
 
Erosion Empire
Erosion Empire
 
Michael sees all this as part of his design process and he keeps it all very hands on, from taking the original digital image, which might be of a drawing or painting he has done, to manipulating it on the computer and then guiding the printing process. As the fabric comes out the printer, it needs to be carefully watched, to keep the fabric smooth. It then needs to be steamed and then washed.
 
Sometimes it is hard to use digital prints in patchwork as they are almost too beautiful and complete in themselves. Michael, however, sees them like any other patchwork fabric: there to be cut and pieced. His piecing is still complex, using a lot of ‘inserts’, allowing for new juxtapositions of textures, images and colours.

MUSEUM INSPIRATION

Looking at images of Michael’s recent work, I was intrigued as to the subject matter. I found Ghost Figure particularly haunting, and not just because of the title. It’s the idea of a presence that is there, but that isn’t there. The images on the right look alluring, but they look decaying and eroding. This is a theme that reappears in Erosion Empire. Everything decays, from supposedly throw away graffiti, through old buildings and cathedrals to the natural world.
 
I asked Michael what inspired him. “My work is largely intuitive – I put this with that, and then stand back to feel the correspondences that are activated (or not). I’m always trying to get at the underside of things – those emotional and psychological realms that we carry around within us, and those undercurrents that exist out there, on the other side of the surface of things, whether they be in the natural world or in the built environment. I’m after a kind of visual poetry, and if my work doesn’t ring poetic to me then I’ve failed. I can’t always articulate the resonances I’m after – it’s the works themselves that have to bring that forth. Maybe this sounds ambiguous, but there you have it. It’s not always premeditated or contrived. I let it happen. The results will, I hope, speak in their own voice.”
 
Home Economics
Home Economics
 
Surprisingly both Home Economics and Ghost Figure have the same original source. Michael was invited in 2004 to explore the collection of Racine Art Museum, in Wisconsin, USA. It is a museum dedicated to contemporary craft, with a permanent collection of 20th century craft. Michael spent a valuable weekend “mining” the museum’s collection and this fed into these two works. Home Economics ‘samples’ block printed fabric swatches from the 1940s from the museum’s collection and this tied in with some existing fabrics that Michael had printed. The text is from Ode to Ironing by Pablo Neruda and if you look closely you can see that one of leaf like fabrics is actually iron plates – looking rather burnt or well used to me. Like many people, the iron has resonances of childhood for Michael, reminding him of his mother and the endless rounds of washing and ironing.
 
The genesis of Ghost Figure is even more intriguing. Have you ever tried taking photos of museum exhibits only to discover that the flash has bounced off the glass case and so you have a photo of yourself rather than the object? Sometimes even without the flash you can still get reflections. Michael discovered this happening, rather than getting frustrated by it, he decided to work with it and Ghost Figure was one of the results. The ghostly figure is Michael himself, reflected in Noboru Takayama’s Headless Scenery.
 
As a quilter, Michael’s work is constantly surprising and evolving, which I find refreshing. He is one of the headlining artists at this year’s (2006) Festival of Quilts in Birmingham. Having read about his work and discussed it with him, albeit by email, I can’t wait to see them ‘in the flesh’.

First published in Popular Patchwork August 2006