Amy Milne (AM): This is Amy Milne and I’m here [static.] and I’m here with Michael Michalski and we’re at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. It is Wednesday, April 27, 2011 and it’s 6:20 p.m. I’m here to interview Michael for the Quilters’ S.O.S.–Save Our Stories project, which is a project of The Alliance for American Quilts. Let’s start by talking about the quilt that we’re sitting in front of, which is a quilt that is a part of the exhibit here. Tell us about your quilt.
Michael Michalski (MM): [heavy static.] This is Cosmic Plum, the quilt I created for the 2010, did they call it 2010 or 2011 New Quilts from Old Favorites. It was Orange Peel, so it has lots of ovals and football shapes on it. I started designing a quilt that was very traditional but since this was going to hang in the Museum, I hoped, I really wanted a piece of modern art. So I kind of tossed that aside and went in a whole new direction and, keeping some of the shapes, but really changing proportions and trying to come up with a unique color scheme, it’s graduating tones of green and purple and I achieved what I was seeking for, to make something that is definitely not a bed quilt, meant to be viewed and thought of. Also, lately I’ve been doing lots of three dimensional so, some new three dimensional techniques which I came up with in the process, which you really shouldn’t try something new in the quilt that you’re putting out there for competition, but I did, and having now done it I could probably do it quite well, but first ones were a little rough.
AM: What were the parameters of the contest?
MM: The contest was to do somehow reference the orange peel block which is simple to do. All you have to do include the football shape or orange peel shape in the quilt somehow and it just needed to be between fifty inches and eighty inches in each dimension. Other than that it is entirely up to you, what to do with it.
AM: No color constraints?
MM: No color constraints, no fabric constraints. I think it was nothing perishable on it, so other than that it’s pretty open.
AM: What inspired you for the color scheme?
MM: The colors, well, being orange peel it started out orange and green which I figured people were doing a lot and then when I decided I wanted to shade it, purple is really a color you can get lots of variations. Grayed-out purple is nice as opposed to grayed-out orange, which looks a little sickly, so I switched the orange parts to purple. I like green. Orange, green and purple are a triad so it really gives some friction, in a way, and so I just left out the orange, leaving the purple and the green. It wasn’t meant to be a calm in any way, it was supposed to be a little more energetic.
AM: Yeah, it is. And you won an award for this quilt?
MM: I won, I came in fifth place which for my first time I was quite excited. I just was trying to get it so it would be hanging in the Museum.
AM: Is this the first quilt that you, so it’s the first quilt you’ve had in a museum–
MM: First quilt I’ve had in a museum.
AM: But not the first contest you’ve entered?
MM: No, I have entered several, start with something small; there was the Keepsake challenge which, my normal, ‘I can do this in three weeks.’ And if I do this in three weeks, and there was no way, so one the one I put in was a little rough and each challenge you get a feel of what they’re looking for, but I have my own style, so I’m going to keep to that style. I knew it wasn’t quite the kind of thing they go for, but it was good just to get one in there and Keepsake has been around for so long that it’s really something you’ve always, one of the things I’ve found always is, I wanted to have another Keepsake challenge and I have. And, which is good because somebody else fell in love with that quilt so I’m going to loan it to a show somewhere else. It’s always nice to have quilts around to loan to people, which I really don’t, because quilts I make, I make with intention of a gift or a raffle or something. I really don’t have any of my own quilts, except for baby quilts, handmade for demonstrations.
AM: What will happen to this one after the show?
MM: This one? Well, it tours for two years and then I get it back. So I will have a major piece, it’s a loan. At first I was thinking I would sell it, but that’s the thing. I really don’t hang on to anything. I really should start hanging on to things.
AM: Do you sell your quilts?
MM: I don’t make them to sell. What I do, people ask me to buy a quilt. People ask me to make them a quilt for them to buy. So, that’s how I sell quilts. But, I don’t make a quilt and say–
AM: This is for sale.
MM: this is for sale. Because there are so many, between people asking and contests and things I just want to try, I don’t really–it’s like I would like to, a big goal and enter a major show someday, but that takes so much time to make a quilt of that quality that, putting the time aside to do that just seems such a big task that that’s a future project. But, like all things, yes I would love to make quilts to sell. People keep saying, ‘Why don’t you do that?’ You’d buy them, there’s not that much time. [static.]
AM: What kind of feedback have you gotten on the quilts? You just came here for the first time for our interview so this is the first time you’ve seen it hanging on the wall.
MM: The first time I’ve seen it. I’m amazed. Especially since this is the first time I’ve seen it since I put it in a box to send it away. As usual, you’re putting the final stitches in when you should be looking for the post office, so at that moment your thoughts about the quilt are not the greatest, you’re not looking at it. I’m really impressed that I achieved what I was setting out to do. Of course, being my own quilt, I go right to the spots where I’m like, ‘I wish I’d had time to fix that, and what I tried to do there could have been done a better way.’ But, all in all, it really did exactly what I intended.
AM: Would you say this quilt represents an important milestone in your quiltmaking career at this point?
MM: Yes, because this is the first time I went solely with the, just trying to make a quilt just for me. Most other times, yes, I get to do what I want to do. But I have to keep who’s buying it in mind, or who it’s being given to in mind and this is the first time I get to do exactly what I want, when I want to do it. A lot of what I do doesn’t fall within traditional quiltmaking necessarily, so you can’t do it in bed quilt, necessarily or just surprise somebody with it.
AM: Is this the biggest quilt you’ve ever made?
MM: No. My union does a yearly raffle and they’ve raffled quilts, it’s been ten years, now. About five years ago, I knew what was going on but I didn’t really participate. It was also just when I was beginning quilting and finally about five years ago was when I really got committed to quilting and started designing my own, things like that. They asked me to take over the project the last five years, so that’s a queen-sized quilt every year, of an original design, and I have help in the sewing, but, we’ll get into this later when I talk about my career, but I have this big sewing resource behind me.
AM: I can’t wait to hear about that. Let me ask you just some technical questions about this. When people look at the picture of it, it is machine pieced and machine quilted?
MM: Yes, domestic. I do not have a long arm. I had a lesson, but I don’t own one so that means hiring time on one, making the time to go there. There are so many aspects of quilting that each of them take so much time to master, like, ‘Yes, I want to do this, and that.’ But then you have to set aside time to learn it and perfect it before using it, so right now I just concentrated on piecing and domestic machine quilting, different ways to do that.
AM: And this is commercial fabric.
MM: Commercial fabric. People ask me if it’s painted and no, that’s commercial fabric, which I had a small piece of it and it was perfect and search the internet and I found some store that had it, five yards left. Talk about luck. I’m glad I did because that is the perfect fabric, I think.
AM: We talked earlier today, Michael, all kinds of quilting, the contest that’s here at the AQS show and we were talking about how you manipulate the shapes, the pieced and appliquéd shapes so you used the Electric Quilt software to modify?
MM: I use Electric Quilts, yes. Computer is very helpful because you can put the shape in there and start contorting it and come up with all different aspects, although now I’m starting to find limits on what I can do with the computer that, I’m actually starting to move back to drawing because you can roughly get down exactly what your ideas are and then spend the time to try and translate it on the computer. Computer works in different ways than your mind does, so it takes time to make the computer do what you want it to do. [static.] And it also may be that I’m not adept enough on the computer. I’ pretty smart, but that’s another skill. You could spend all your time learning to do advanced drawing on the computer, but that way I’m taking a step back that, maybe, technology. You have more artistic freedom keeping things simple, as opposed to. But that’s a very recent discovery of what I’m trying to design now. That is no way I could draw it on the computer, so it’s on paper.
AM: Let’s talk about, now, [static.] about where you’re coming to quiltmaking from. Let’s start by asking, I know that you said you have family members who quilt.
MM: I personally don’t know any family members that quilt, but someone on my mother’s side did, because my mother had a couple of quilts they made. So there were quilts. I knew what quilts were, and that this was made by a relative and it’s something special. It was like, ‘Yes, you can go out and buy one but, you know, being great mother’s it’s eighty years old or something so I don’t know. I haven’t seen it in years. She has it packed up special somewhere. I really should ask to see it again.
AM: But you remember–
MM: I remember the colors. I remember it really had, now I know it’s a thirties kind of thing about it but then I didn’t know what was. But it’s very, very special and it’s probably all hand made and all that, put together. Since I’ve been quilting I’ve not seen it.
AM: So what led you to start making quilts?
MM: I taught myself how to sew as a teenager, to make my own clothes, just for, you know, I’ve always been creative. I took craft classes very young and all that sort of thing always, playing around with whatever was laying around the house, making crafty items. I learned how to sew and now my career is in costumes, so knowing how to sew led into that. I was always interested in theater. Do you want the long story version of how I got into this?
MM: I did plays in high school, but I was also very interested in chemistry. At that time it was like, ‘Well, theater is not a profession. It’s something you do for fun.’ So I went to school for chemistry, which I loved studying but then I had two internships, discovered it’s not really the career for me so I fell back on theater, which I’d done, but not studied in any way and with my background in sewing, costumes came very easily. So I ended up doing wardrobe and then went to grad school for that and ended up in New York and then sewing was my career in a way. I don’t make the clothes. I take care of the clothes, but I still have the background for making them, so I could. And you end up remaking them or something falls apart and you need to over sew so you do use it in some ways. Then I got out of making my own clothes, a, it’s so much easier to buy them. Yes you don’t have the creative input. So I started doing home dec but that wasn’t very satisfying and I decided to make my mother a quilt, which I’m finally finishing twenty years later because somebody else wants to buy it. It never was finished for her and she recently found out about this and she was like, ‘Well, that’s good I didn’t really like it.’ [AM laughts.] It’s not her style. I made her another quilt instead, which she really loves. The first one was brown and navy because that’s what her bedroom colors were at that time, but that’s when she was living in a barn, so it’s kind of like the barn determined the colors. When she got in a house and got to choose her own colors she’s more into pastels and stuff.
AM: So she got her quilt?
MM: She got her quilt. It just wasn’t the quilt I started making. You know, your first quilt, me starting with a–I was making a king because I asked my brother what size quilt was on her bed so he measured it, that she had a king-sized quilt on a queen-sized bed, so here I was making a king-sized quilt, Lone Star, and Log Cabin, and I was using half-inch seam allowances because that’s what she used in garment making and I lined everything because at that time, that was even in ’91, even then the quilt fabrics you got were not hat good quality. They were too sheer to really hold up, so I lined everything. So it is so thick, I started hand quilting it and I gave up, in a box and a year ago I took it out to show somebody. She wanted a Lob Cabin quilt so I just brought this out to say this was kind of a Lob Cabin quilt and it was like ‘I just want to buy that one.’ So that was okay. So I’m finishing it and she’ll get it soon.
AM: It came full circle. When do you find time to quilt, because currently you’re working on what?
MM: We did the musical on Broadway, [sighs.] going strong after seven years and hopefully that many more. It’s good to have a nice, steady job. It’s a full time job so that time is taken, but at least you know, especially in this economy, a, and b, in the arts in general, having a steady income is not always something you can count on. So I’m very lucky I don’t have to worry about that. Outside of work, all my time is spent quilting, pretty much. And I also quilt at work during my breaks, being in theater there’s a place to sew, so I have a place where I can go and sew during the show, during my breaks, or between shows. So actually that’s a good productive place to work because there’s no distractions as most people know from trying to work at home, there are just so many distractions. For you, even more so. So there, there is nothing else to think about but the quilt and I get a lot of quality time in at work as opposed to home. If I consciously say I’m only quilting, it’s fine but trying to deal with these other things that need to get done as well. So I quilt many. People ask what I do, ‘Is this like two full-time jobs?’ There’s my vocation where I earn money and my avocation which is what I really want to do, which is make quilts.
AM: And luckily they’re related. There’s a thread there, no pun intended.
MM: Yes, they’re both related to fabric in one way or another, so they have cross-over knowledge and that’s part of what I’m trying to do more to in my quilts, is using clothing techniques in quilting. When I first started it was trying to make a quilt like a garment which does not work, but now it’s using things you use in clothing making as parts in a quilt.
AM: That’s really interesting to me, how you’re going back and forth between the two. You are one of the founders of The Broadway Gentlemen’s Quilting Auxiliary. Tell us about that.
MM: There are two other gentlemen who are both actors and I’ve worked with each of them and they work with each other, but not all three of us working together. So we knew about each other’s quilting, and we’d talked about it and it was like, we should formalize some sort of getting together and talking about this as opposed to just whenever we crossed paths, so started exploring other peoples; there are actually quite a number of people on Broadway who quilt and they were like me that were solitary quilters until five years ago I called it quilting in a vacuum, where I was self taught. I learned from books. I did this all on my own, really had nobody to discuss it with, so that somehow we can get together and talk about quilting. So, put the word out and we got quite a number of people to join. We also got people who joined for different reasons. We formed this on Facebook, which is very interesting, trying to use new technology in an old way, because we were just trying to have a place for all the quilting people interested to easily contact each other. But people didn’t quite understand what it was, that they thought it was an on-line group when really it was just the front for the real group, so we had people joining from far distances away who–we try to explain it. And then we had Broadway gentlemen join because they thought it was a Broadway Gentlemen’s club, not realizing it was a quilting club. On paper we have forty members, but it’s pretty much like twenty who are quilters and twenty who are friends and supporters.
AM: Yeah, which is important.
MM: And some of them are crafty in other ways. We have a knitter and we keep on saying we’re going to expand this just beyond just quilting.
AM: And do you get together for meetings?
MM: We have a monthly meeting on a Sunday morning before work. We just talk quilts. Our mission statement was charity and fraternity, so not only getting together monthly and sharing and every month we have an exchange of some type, but also, we always have an on-going charity project of some sort, even like we just made the Oxford Quilts of Valor, was just last month and before that we had a couple month project of we made strips that somebody assembled for a charity he’s interested in and we just started a block collection. Every month we’re going to have a block-of-the-month. Everybody will make their block, will go in a box. When anyone has a charity project they want to do they can just take however many blocks they need from the box.
AM: Oh, great. You talked about you’re a self-taught quiltmaker. Do you remember what books or websites or people you sought out?
MM: Of course this was way before websites, ’91. Books, of course, I can picture them but the names I cannot quite remember, but it was things like, it was before Stack-n-Whack®, [Magic Stack-n-Whack®Quilts, Bethany Reynolds, AQS, 1998.] Sixty-five Easy Quilt Blocks. [Easy Machine Paper Piecing, 65 Quilt Blocks for Foundation Piecing, Carol Doak, Martingale Co., 1994.] This is just the beginning of rotary cutting, so even my first Log Cabin quilt was draw out all the logs in pencil and cut them out. All the diamonds were cut out with templates because that was before I really knew the innovations in cutting and as soon as I discovered the rotary cutter I then changed.
AM: Did you take classes after you taught yourself the basics?
MM: Taking a couple of classes just to be around other quilters, not necessarily because I went there to learn something new. Well, I took a class, maybe ten years ago. I was buying an apartment and I actually chose one which was sort of near a quilting store which soon went out of business. But after moved there then I took a class there just to meet other neighborhood quilters. Then recently I took a design class to try and free up my artistic side. In some ways I am traditional because I work geometrically but I want it to be a modern geometric, which, actually, this, New Quilts From Old Favorites was a good way of demonstrating that. It has always been an inspiration, this contest, because it does take the traditional but it looks at it with a modern eye. Not that everybody here can see all these quilts, but you wouldn’t call them traditional.
MM: That’s why, and I know it’s a later question, but a very early influence is Michael James. That was his, I don’t know what you call it, his stripe period where he was taking stripe fabric and cutting it up and sewing it back together in these incredible shapes and it was just–not that’s exactly what I wanted to do, but that’s the feeling that I wanted to go toward that, yes, it’s geometric, but you don’t look at it and say, ‘Oh, it’s a bed quilt.’
AM: [static.] But it’s a modern, what was the term you used, it’s a modern traditional?
MM: Modern traditional.
AM: That’s a neat way to define it. When was the first time you taught a class, because I know you’ve taught before.
MM: Another interesting story there. A craft store opened around the corner from me and I went in there a couple times, bought some fabric and all that. I walked in there one day and I kind of recognized the person behind the counter and it turned out it was someone I went to school with and it was her store. She’d never been in there when I’d been in there before. I told her I was quilting and she said, ‘Oh, great. We’re looking for a quilting teacher. It’s kind of like, okay, I don’t really consider myself a teacher, but it is, it’s the basics of quilting. It’s like, ‘This is cotton fabric. This is a rotary cutter.’ And even though I’ve had people that have now taken it six or seven times, you find people take it and in their first class they find out it’s never enough, so you get the ones who just want to keep taking it and taking it, and the ones who don’t even quite finish the first project, partly because they find out how much effort goes into making a quilt. They think, ‘Oh, I have a friend who’s having a baby so I’ll make a quilt.’ Even though we’re doing the beginnerest of projects, although I don’t teach traditional, I teach modern. I make my own patterns for the class to teach what I think is something simple, yet looks contemporary. But, they still keep making these very simple patterns and I’m trying to convince them to take the next step of coming up with your own ideas, which is difficult. Even though when I was in high school I thought I’d be a teacher until I realized, ‘Oh, that means I have to talk to people.’ [loud static.] So it’s kind of like teaching really isn’t me but I think I have a lot of knowledge I can share. I definitely want to try to share my enthusiasm but sometimes it gets frustrating when I can’t quite get the idea across and, of course, your first quilt they expect to come out perfect and when it doesn’t they get, ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ I keep saying, ‘Your first one won’t be good, and b. it’s all about, using a sewing machine, it’s all about the feel, and it takes time, especially quilting.’ I sit down and show them and it’s nice and even and then they do exactly what I do and it’s not even. It’s like, it just takes time. Obviously, to some people I’ve passed on the enthusiasm, which was the whole idea.
AM: Have you ever given away or sold patterns?
MM: Not yet. I had a pattern appear in a magazine from another contest, but it was a web extra, so who even knows how many people saw it. I mean they saw the quilt in the magazine. But, recently there was the Ricky Tims challenge which design a quilt with five of his fabrics and I won that, so that quilt will be published eventually, but as they are now in the midst of show season, they are swamped.
AM: Does that include a pattern of the quilt?
MM: Includes a pattern of the quilt, very interestingly, I still own the rights to the quilts and the design and they’re just licensing it to use the pattern, to publish a pattern. So, I will have a pattern out there. That quilt is actually part of a series I’m working on which, some day, would be interesting to make a book or a series of patterns from this. It’s the same pattern, you just add more elements to make it more complicated. The first one is a simple block, but then you can add this, and you can add this and it gets into my three-dimensional techniques as well as paper foundation piecing because you get exactly the shape you want, so I’ve come up with ways to do Y seams on foundation paper piecing and things like that, which I’m sure somebody out there does it but I’ve never run across it, so that’s something I’d like to pass on somehow. They often say what you do in class is what you should do the patterns for and all that, but what I do is not the same as what I teach, so I can’t take what I’m trying to develop and use that as a class because that’s not the kind of quilting they want to be doing.
AM: But this quilt that we’re looking at is in a book.
MM: Is in a book. They published the New Quilts from Old Favorites book, [New Quilts From Old Favorites: Orange Peel, AQS.] and, yeah, it must be the first book.
AM: So that’s a first.
MM: That’s a first. There was the quilt in Fonz and Porter and the on quilt show [inaudible.] as the Quilt Life Magazine, which did an article on our quilt guild. It was interviewing the three founding members and we each showed a few quilts so I’ve had some quilts there, but this is the first book, which is real exciting. Everybody else is real excited; so many people have asked do you still have a copy? It’s like they don’t quilt but they want a copy because I’m in the book.
AM: [inaudible, static.] I thought of something as you were saying that. At home, I would imagine, you live in Brooklyn, [New York.] I would imagine your space is not huge.
MM: No, 850 square feet, two bedroom apartment, pretty typical.
AM: How do you quilt at home?
MM: How do I quilt at home? Well, I used to live alone, which was great because everything, everywhere, but recently I’ve started having roommates for company. I work in the theater and there are a lot of artists out there who really can’t afford their own place, so it’s more like I give people who would like to live in New York and can’t really afford it, someplace to live. But part of the things they know they have to live with my quilting. It’s part of the agreement. There’s two bedrooms, but they both have a fabric wall as well as all other sorts of craft materials which don’t even get touched anymore because–I used to crochet a lot and that’s just kind of been put aside. And sew on the dining room table. There used to be fabric in every corner but I try to get rid of some and just go through, reorganize the apartment, find lots of different places for shelves and now, at least, there’s not fabric underneath the sofa and under the chairs. [AM laughs.] Then, when I’m in the middle of a project that’s all spread out, but now, having someone else there it is a conscious effort to try to keep it somewhat under control. Sew on the dining room table, caught on the kitchen counter, layout on the living room floor.
AM: You make it work.
MM: Make it work, yeah. The design wall, the wall of the dining room which right now is just pinned to the wall which over time will probably not be a, you get little holes there which are easily filled, but–and this is the apartment which I bought with the intention, some people, especially in New York, they don’t plan on staying very long, or, ‘This is only our apartment until I get the apartment I want.’ Well, I bought this apartment, this is where I’m going to live as long as I’m there, I’m retiring, at least not for another eighteen or twenty years. So that’s where I’m going to be so if I want to put a design wall in the dining room, I’m going to put a design wall in the dining room. I might as well do it, since I use it for that anyways. Make it official.
AM: Right, permanent planned, how to sustain your quilting.
MM: Yeah, on the back of the dining room table is by the apartment door. I’m going to make the back of the door, you know it’s a metal door, so I a design I do with magnets. I’m going to make it a cork board and then I can just pin, you know you get magazine pictures and all that.
AM: Do you have a website, or a blog?
MM: I do not. I got on Facebook for the sole purpose of having some place to put my quilts as people ask to see them. I can have them look at me there, but I don’t blog. Again, that comes with the, I’m not comfortable with my speaking, I’m also not comfortable with my writing. And, it’s another time commitment, another thing to learn, all that sort of thing. It may come to that someday, but right now I like sharing what I have done but I’m not into it for the purpose of self-promotion. I’m not trying to make it a career. [sharp static.] I’m not trying, necessarily [sharp static.] trying to get people on my band wagon to do things as I do, just trying to share the enthusiasm. Which you can do with a blog, I understand.
AM: You’re doing it through Facebook, though.
MM: Right, but partly on Facebook you meet so many other people in quilting you just spend time looking at websites and talking to people and all of that. That just takes time away from sewing. I limit parameters. I get home from work late at night. I get an hour for sewing, an hour to do whatever something like that I want to do each night, which isn’t very much you can do in an hour.
AM: It seems that’s why you’re successful. You set aside times and you’re disciplined about it.
MM: Most people say, ‘How can you get so much done?’ Well, the only way to get it done is to get it done.
AM: To plan ahead?
MM: I don’t go out that much. That was a choice. I finally realized I have to. I tried to do both and you can’t do both so, right now at least, my priority is, I have so many ideas [papers rustle.] I want to get as many as I can out.
AM: You mentioned that Michael James was an inspiration. His work is an inspiration to you. What about his work, [MM: yes.] you described it as along the same lines, sort of the modern traditional–
MM: His I wouldn’t call traditional other than he worked in it as a traditional medium, but his is definitely modern. There’s no traditional about that. Actually, recently he has gotten more blocky so even though there’s no way it’s traditional it’s more in traditional terms because it’s more blocky as opposed to that time, his stripes and abstract shapes.
AM: Are there any other quiltmakers, specific quiltmakers, or just types of work that really appeal to you?
MM: Types? Well, I’m drawn to what I like to do, which is modern traditional. I’m definitely more into geometrics than pictorals. I’m definitely into piecing more than appliqués, so that’s what I’m drawn to. As for quilters, this is where it would have helped to have written names down. She’s a French quilt designer, she does–
AM: We’ll look it up and add it in brackets after, but describe–
MM: I want to say Porcella, but it’s Yvonne Porcella. But Judy Neimeyer, Judy? Names are not my… Everybody says that but really I could be standing in front of somebody and not know their name. Her with her, kaleidoscope is not quite my style, the way she does–
AM: Paula Nadelstern.
MM: Paula Nadelstern. Boy was I far off on that one. She has her kaleidoscope, cutting fabric and putting it back, but she also does kaleidoscopes from pieced fabric, which is definitely along my lines and so that’s the kind of quilt and that’s this French designer does those. I’ve actually seen vendors sewing her patterns at the show today, so it’s popular. But there’re also advanced patterns which are part of the quilting world today. You have this wide span from the beginners to advanced people and you’ve got a lot of different range to cater to.
AM: Would you say, then, a certain amount of complexity really kind of attracts you to a quilt?
MM: Yes. I don’t like simple. That’s part of my, what I set out to do is make, find a way to do something simply that doesn’t look simple. But it usually ends up not being simple. Because I do things, yes I do it this way, but I really want it to overlap the other way, which makes it twice as hard. If I just changed it slightly it would be easier but that’s not what I want. That’s also, the kinds of quilts I teach is, they’re modern and people look at them and say, ‘It’s not apparent right away, how you made it.’ And that’s it, with so many people quilting today you get so many different ideas that a lot of people are coming up with their own way of doing something. So that’s what I try to do with them, is to look at it and there’s a trick that makes it simple, but if you don’t know the trick you think you’re piecing all these things together and so you know that’s not the way to do it.
AM: I’ll have to say I saw a lot of people standing in front of your quilt in the exhibit today, so it feels like people are, you can almost hear their wheels turning, trying to figure out how you did that quilt.
MM: Even I looked at it today and I was like, that almost looks like it could have been painted or something else, but, no, that was sewing lots of itty bitty pieces of fabric together on paper. It wasn’t anything else. It was plain old traditional paper piecing.
AM: You mentioned about painting. When I look at this quilt, we’re looking at now, there are a lot of parts of it that seem painted to me.
MM: People have asked me that and I was quite surprised because no, that’s all fabric and finding fabrics that shade together and also it’s fabric that was hard to find. It looks like a stamped fabric, but it was a commercial print of ten years ago, or something.
AM: We talked earlier about quiltmaking has traditionally been mostly women, a part of women’s history and now more and more there are a lot of men quiltmaking, including you. Have you, through The Broadway Gentlemen’s Quilting Auxiliary, is that an issue that you talk about?
MM: No, because while there are men’s issues involved, the kind of men’s issues we deal with are so kind of all of Broadway issues, with any artistic community which, oh we didn’t talk about this, we can talk about this, where men are predominately gay. Men’s quilting world is very well split between gay and straight, but we still have the same kind of issues of juggling; yes, quilting is not traditionally a men’s role and most men just kind of did it in private. Now all of a sudden they’re all discovering each other and that’s more the community of, a, yes, I can do this, too, and there’s no reason they can’t and men’s perspective is different than women’s. Not necessarily that are necessarily [inaudible.] he right quilts, but their perspective on things in general are different than women’s, so that part of Facebook, discovering all these other male quilters out there, and we talk and it’s not about quilts, it’s just about being a man who quilt.
AM: Do you feel that you are, with the publication in this book and the fact that you want some challenges, that you’re sort of gaining a role of somewhat of a leader, or maybe an inspiration would be a better way to think about it?
MM: I don’t even know if it’s an inspiration or just a way of being visible because back when I was starting there was very few. There was Michael James, there was John Flynn. Recently there’s been Ricky but that’s only been eight years or something, so twenty years ago there weren’t many at all. And, also, many of them were more on the business side of it and they ran their wives’ business or they designed the fabric but they weren’t the quilters, themselves. So, now, it’s more of the making it that we’re there, making us more visible so people will know we’re there. We’re not trying to be separate or anything, it’s just another facet of the quilting world.
AM: Do you feel that your quilts represent any part of your community. Do you think that someone who looks at your quilts would think of it as an urban quilt or someone with a background in theater?
MM: I wouldn’t say urban quilt. Not urban quilts because my colors aren’t urban. I’m drawn to color and especially gradations. I love rainbows, but to put a rainbow on a quilt is just too much.
[both laugh.] That’s something I’ve learned over time is learning how to play with that idea but not to represent the whole rainbow. I look at my quilts and I see either someone with an architectural background which I don’t have exactly.. It comes from the scientific background and there are actually, and I really admire the quilters out there who really base their quilts on science. They take formulae or a biological something and make it into a quilt that highly represents it. I’m just kind of sadly representing math or science, but not in an overt way. Well, most quilts involve math in some way buy mine are really math heavy in figuring out how things go together.
AM: That’s really interesting, your background in chemistry and just through the whole connection between science and art and how it affects it all.
MM: Yes, which it is.
AM: Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you that you would like to talk about?
MM: We talked about what we were going to talk about and so many things came up, and now what did we cover and what did we not cover? Right now I can’t think of something that we haven’t covered.
AM: One question I didn’t ask is have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time, or as an activity to occupy you versus and artistic activity?
MM: Not really. I, like so many people, have their 9-11 quilt even though mine took five years. [sharp static.] Mine was done by the fifth anniversary but it wasn’t immediately the day after I was thinking about it. But I really wanted it to say what I was feeling and it just took me time. With my process I just wanted to get it exactly right, so it takes a long time. I wish I was one of those people who can just, ‘Hey, this is the idea. I will do it and then go on to the next one and it’ll get the idea clear.’ I concentrate on the one really hard.
AM: Do you ever work on more than one quilt at one time?
MM: I will have one quilt that someone has commissioned going while I have an art quilt going, while I have a class project going, but it’s hard to do two of the same, because they take different skill sets, one’s being artistic, one is just getting a big something made, but it’s more repetitive work than thinking about how it’s fitting together and what really the colors have to be. So there’s always several going on, you know, things that you started but something more important came up so you decide to do the more important and you have to remember to go back, so it’s not take a quilt start to finish and go on to the next one.
AM: Anything else?
MM: I’m sure many will come to mind later, but right now that’s, in a nutshell, that’s what I think about quilting right now, besides it is a constant thought in a way. But it’s just me spending more time learning to better express what I’m trying to express.
AM: You’re very prolific right now. It seems like you’re really actively pursuing a goal.
MM: I am. And you always compare yourself to other people, you see people put out so many quilts. I don’t do that, but then, again, I don’t do things the way they do. That’s fine.
AM: That’s right.
MM: Everybody has their own way of approaching it and being comfortable in what you do. That way quilting is a lot like life in general. Everybody’s different. You have to be comfortable with what you are, not wanting to be like somebody else.
AM: Thank you so much Michael Michalski for letting me interview you for Quilters’ S.O.S., Save Our Stories.
MM: Thank you for talking to me.
AM: It was wonderful, and we are ending our interview at 7:09 p.m. Thank you so much.
MM: Thank you.
Interviewee: Michael Michalski
Interviewer: Amy Milne
Transcriber: Eleanor Wilkinson
Project Name: The New York QSOS
Location: Paducah, Kentucky
Time: 6:20 PM
Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories (QSOS) creates, through recorded interviews, a broadly accessible body of information concerning quiltmaking, both present-day and in living memory. Our downloadable QSOS Guidebook has everything you need to conduct your own QSOS interviews. Our archive for the original audio recordings and photographs is the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
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