SDA Member At Random: Therese May
December 7, 2010
Therese May’s mission is to “create art with a healing message and inspire the flow of creative juices in the viewer.” She is recognized worldwide as a leader in the creation and development of the “art” quilt, particularly in her use of embellishment and the spontaneous folk art style of her work. Her interests, her curiosity and the wanderings of her own heart stoke her inspiration.
“I love the idea that ‘Home is where the Heart is’ and I also feel that ‘Home is where the Art is,” she observes.
Therese knew she was an artist when she was a 5-year old in Madison, Wisconsin. “I brought home a drawing from my kindergarten class and showed it to my parents,” she recalls. “They said that it was beautiful and I believed them. All the way through my childhood, I kept on doing drawings, believing in my talent.” She learned how to sew, embroider, knit, and crochet from her grandmother who was an inspiration and delight to visit.
She continued to be recognized for her artwork through junior high and high school, where being an artist became her identity. After graduation, she enrolled in the art program at the University of Wisconsin where she focused mainly on painting. May also began to be very attracted to the idea of quilts, since her husband’s grandmother had made quite a few traditional ones.
May asked her how to get started. She was given a flannel sheet for a layer to put in between the quilt top and the backing and thus began–and ended–her quilt lessons. She commenced by sewing squares and triangles together using fabric from old clothes—things that held some significance in both her life and in the lives of those she loved. In late 1965, she made many simple patchwork quilts, most of which she gave away to family and friends.
In 1967 she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in painting from UW and then moved with her son and then-husband, an artist and art teacher, to San Jose, California, where her daughter was born. Of this time, May says, “I loved staying home with my children and doing art. I just started making lots of baby quilts and all of our beds were covered with quilts.”
In late 1967 she began making pictures with cloth by experimenting with drawings translated into fabric. Referencing the silk-screened repeat portraits of movie stars by Andy Warhol, she decided to translate this idea into a quilt format. She projected a slide to render a photo of her face into a pattern that was used to cut fabrics and machine appliqué them with an uneven zigzag stitch into a self-portrait entitled Therese Quilt. “I was just having fun with fabric and had no idea this quilt would ever be seen in public, although I did have some sort of psychological ideas which prompted the making of this quilt.” she reflects. “These kinds of ideas have always been very important to me because my artwork–whether for private enjoyment or for public viewing–is inspired by very intuitive, inward discoveries.”
She went on to earn her MA in design, with emphasis on the “art” quilt, in 1974 from San Jose State University and then continued making quilts. In 1999, Therese Quilt was selected by a panel of experts representing the Alliance for American Quilts, the American Quilt Study Group, the International Quilt Association, and the National Quilting Association to be published in The Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts.
More recently, May continues to use her mixed media approach to create works with a positive message. In her Riding the Horse series, she prints her drawings onto fabric, paints and embellishes them and then makes them into the shape of horses’s hooves “to symbolize the idea of taking one step at a time while riding your horse along the path of life.” In her Abundance series, she expresses her gratitude for what she has. In both series she loves to use free-motion quilting instead of the tying she used to do. She is now looking forward to using a long-arm machine for quilting.
May has been honored as both an artist and teacher and her work has been exhibited throughout the US, Europe, and Japan, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Louvre. Among her many awards are the Most Innovative Use of Medium award in Quilt National ’85 and the Quilts Japan Prize in Quilt National ’95. Her work is published in numerous books and magazines, including The Art Quilt and America’s Glorious Quilts. Museums that own her work include the New England Quilt Museum, the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design, the Renwick Gallery and the International Quilt Study Center. She has been a member of SDA “on and off for about 25 years” and seems to recall attending one of the first conferences.
May encourages everyone to get in touch with their creativity, because, in her view, “We all have this innate quality in one way or another. Even if a person does not consider herself or himself an artist, there is still this creative spark, which is the source of all our ideas. My work has always come from within me.”
Therese May has been making art quilts for over 40 years and plans to continue to do so, fueled by her love of the process.