Mary McCarthy (MM): This is Mary McCarthy, I’m here today the 5th of November 2011 the time is 2:21 P.M. and I’m conducting an interview with Mary Ann Vaca-Lambert. This is for Quilters’ S.O.S. Save our stories, a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. Hello Mary Ann. Tell me about the quilt you brought today.
Mary Ann Vaca-Lambert (MAVL): The quilt is called El Rancho de los Comaleros and is dedicated to my grandfather Secundino Vaca. He actually came from Mexico, he walked over from Mexico and this is where he was born and where he lived. Where it is at the base of the mountain, that’s called Comalero. There are local ranches at the base of that mountain that are called El Rancho de los Comaleros which is where it gets its name. I made that in 2006 in his memory, or 2007 rather.
MM: What kind of special meaning does this quilt have for you if any?
MAVL: Basically in 2006 I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 49 and when then I was told that I needed to have surgery. Then I realized that I was also already had tickets for the Quilt Festival. Then I decided that I needed to schedule the surgery early enough so that it would not interfere with coming to the Quilt Festival so that was in August. It gave me enough time to recuperate to come and as I was going through the festival, when I saw the quilts that were in tactile architecture, and they had given me only 15% chance of living for a year, so when I saw the quilts, I knew that there was one thing I needed to do and that was to make this quilt because it was an important place for my grandfather there. It’s something that I felt real strongly about doing, so that next, you know right after that, I started thinking about it. I started it in December, I finished it in January of the next year in 2007, then I saw the Tactile Architecture call for entry and I entered it, and it was accepted, so it was a great year.
MM: Why did you chose this quilt to bring today?
MAVL: Because it’s what started it out for me.
MM: What do you think someone viewing this quilt might think about you?
MAVL: I can’t presume to know what they would think but I would hope that they would just enjoy the scene.
MM: Do you have this quilt at home or does it hang somewhere else?
MAVL: It hangs at home, but it has traveled in Tactile Architecture for a year when I did put it in other shows.
MM: Do you have someone in your family who quilted?
MAVL: Yes, my grandmother quilted and my mother as well but not very much. I think they both just made a few quilts.
MM: How did you begin quilting?
MAVL: I began because of my cancer and I needed a way, a mechanism to heal and it seemed very logical to do that and so that’s why I started quilting.
MM: Do you have a painter’s background? That looks very painterly.
MAVL: I have a Bachelor’s Degree from Sam Houston State University [Texas.] in Studio Art with a Concentration in Ceramics, but I do have a Masters, Master of Arts also from Sam Houston with Concentration in Drawing and Print Making.
MM: Are you working on a quilt now?
MAVL: Not this very minute other than I’ve got several in my head that I’m going to be working on.
MM: Are they more traditional quilts or art quilts?
MAVL: I prefer art quilts, they really, I totally respect the traditional quilters but it’s very tedious and so exact that there’s so much math involved that that just gets behind me. I really like doing this very free-form sort of quilting.
MM: You said something about your grandmother’s quilting, do you have any memories of quilting as a child?
MAVL: I remember my favorite quilt was a pink quilt that had these little tiny pink flowers on it and I just loved that quilt and I had it for years and years. It was my favorite quilt growing up, yeah, which she had made.
MM: Do you have other quiltmakers in your family at all?
MAVL: No I don’t. I’m the only one actually at this point.
MM: What do you find most pleasing about quiltmaking?
MAVL: The process, it would have to be the process; from the conception to the drawing and design and to the implementation and the delivery of the piece.
MM: Do you belong to any art groups? Art quilt groups?
MAVL: I belong to the Austin area [Texas.] quilt guild and the Austin Fiber Artists and the Studio Artists Association, Studio Art Quilters’ Association.
MM: Do you have any favorite techniques or materials you like to use?
MAVL: My favorite techniques is thread sketching or thread painting, you know to create the lights and the darks and shadows and light bouncing off of the subject matter. Raw edge appliqué, mostly because the raw ridges of the fabric I think show the hand of the quilter and the texture that’s involved.
MM: Do you have a studio that you create in?
MAVL: My studio is what would be the study of the house, you know the houses a lot of them have studies now. While mine is my studio and it has you know bookcases with books for reference and bins with my fabric in it and cutting table and a wonderful TV that my husband gave me for my quilt shows.
MM: How do you balance your time with quilting and work?
MAVL: It isn’t easy. I find that I don’t have a lot of time or not the kind of time I’d like so I usually just do them on the weekends.
MM: Do you have a design wall up in your studio?
MAVL: No I don’t, I usually draw my work on paper or I’ve got a large roll of paper, then I draw it out on my cutting table which is pretty good size. I also like the foot charts, you know that they use in businesses, because they’re a good size, they’re pretty close to that size. It’s real easy to draw on them and it’s sticky on the back so you could put it up on the wall if you wanted to do that. But no, I don’t have a design wall; I don’t really have the space. All of my space is taken up you know, with other things on the walls.
MM: Have you used a computer to help you quilt?
MAVL: No. Other than taking photographs maybe then occasionally printing the fabric, you know ether I’ll take a photograph and I’ll print something but sometimes I’ve used that.
MM: What do you think makes a great quilt?
MAVL: I think the love and care that goes into it. I don’t think it really matters what is looks like, but what the person intended to make and the joy they got out of making. I think the use of it, I think that is really what makes a great quilt.
MM: What makes a quilt artistically powerful for you?
MAVL: For me it’s on the instant message that you receive from looking at a quilt. That it can also be as, it can be very simple or it can be dramatic and be more in reference, but I really feel that beauty is in the eye of the beholder so anything can be a beautiful quilt or a successful quilt.
MM: What would you say makes a great quiltmaker?
MAVL: I would think that would be a person that really just enjoys what they’re doing and doesn’t labor on what other people think of their work, but I think it’s a feeling within. The success that they feel is an inner joy.
MM: Is there a specific artist that has influenced your work?
MAVL: I would have to say Georgia O’Keefe and Marc Chagall are two of probably my biggest influences through my art, although they’re not quilters.
MM: Is there a quilter who has influenced you?
MAVL: Geez, you know I’m not very good with names so I’m going to have to pass on saying there’s a particular quilter you know, that has influenced me.
MM: How do you feel about machine quilting versus handquilting?
MAVL: Well let me put that the other way around. I think that people that have the patience and the skill to do handquilting are fabulous; I mean they’re just awe inspiring. However that is not me. I’m afraid that that’s not something that I could spend a lot of time doing. I really like instant gratification and I think that’s one of the reasons I like thread sketching because I know I can take a blank piece of fabric, not even thinking about what I’m going to do, put it on there, look at it, and I could draw, since drawing is one of my mediums. It feels very natural to put a pool of thread and just start moving the fabric when you know, so I guess that’s why I really gravitate the quilting on my machine.
MM: Have you tried longarm quilting?
MAVL: No I have not, although I have friends that do that and they do beautiful work, but I don’t think that’s for me.
MM: Why is quiltmaking important to your life?
MAVL: Because is one of the means of healing, it’s a way of helping me through living with cancer and it’s very inspiring, its very comforting, and it’s the one way that I’ve been able to find a good marriage with my skill and the love of fabric. It was, and I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner, I mean once I got started doing it I just, it was like a bell went off and I realized, “Oh my gosh this is what I need to be doing.”
MM: What do you think about the importance, or non-importance, of quilts in American life?
MAVL: I think that by far they are the keepers of history of day to day life. They have brought forward that history through the use of their materials and the themes, the designs, their inspiration, their reuse of materials; probably the first recyclers. I believe quilters are the first recyclers because they did continuously reuse, reuse, reuse fabric or whatever materials they had available and they would continue to do so although the trends are changing. Quilters are still documenting history, not just pictorial, went through the reuse of the materials on the quilt that they were using.
MM: How do you think quilts should be used?
MAVL: Well one, for comfort, for beauty, for joy, and in any way for shelter, any way possible. I don’t think it really matters.
MM: How do you think quilts should be preserved for the future?
MAVL: Through preservation, through documentation, through taking photographs, maintaining a history.
MM: Have you made quilts for your family?
MAVL: No, well I actually have made a few lap quilts for my family. I have made a few other quilts that were pictorial quilts for my family. That’s about it.
MM: What’s the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today would you say?
MAVL: I would think the cost of the materials. With so much innovation I think a lot of head cost of the materials, like cotton, is going up and I think it sometimes can be difficult you know to spend so much money.
MM: Let me go back to the design of your quilt. Have you tried dyeing fabric on your own?
MAVL: No because of the chemicals involved I try to stay away from the exposure of chemicals.
MM: Does that include painting on the quilt do you think?
MAVL: No because the textile paints are already mixed and a lot of the dyes you have to mix and wear respirators which I can’t do because respirators are meant to go over your face and I breath through my mouth so anything that has dust or particulates that you can inhale, I stay clear from. I think with an already mixed medium it’s easy to use.
MM: Does this quilt hang at your house? Have I asked you that?
MAVL: Yes it does.
MM: Let me ask you, is there something you would like to expound upon or something you would like to continue talking about?
MAVL: I believe that one thing that I would like to say is that my family has been extremely supportive and my wonderful husband, Mark, Mark Lambert that has been right there for me and one of the things that I remember him saying in 2006 when he came home one day, I had got I don’t know out of bed, when I had gone into my studio and I was working he said I would be okay because I was in my studio cutting fabric. That was back in the beginning of my recovery, so you know, I think he has just been instrumental to where I’m at today.
MM: I’m getting ready to close, is there anything else you want to say or anyone else you want to mention?
MAVL: Yes, my wonderful cat Joey, he is my companion for 22 years and spent so much time with me in my quilting room as well as my baby Mia, my other cat that recently passed away. They two were very important.
MM: Thank you. I’d like to thank you formally, Mary Ann Vaca-Lambert for allowing me to interview you today for the Quilters’ Save Our Stories oral history project. Our interview has concluded at 2:43.
MAVL: Thank you so much.