It has been said that I taught Molly Upton how to quilt, but this is how it happened: Teaching myself, I had already made several quilts beginning in my senior year of high school (1970). What fascinated me were the unique effects that could be achieved by piecing fabrics together and not the sewing per se.
Then one summer before college Molly and I opened a little store in a shed in Vermont, which we called "The Front Porch Out Back" where we made all of our merchandise from beads, leather and fabrics that we purchased from New York City wholesale markets. Among our goods were some simple articles of clothing. Molly knew how to sew somewhat.
In the fall we went off to college, Molly to McAlister College in Minnesota and I to the University of Denver. A few years later we became roommates living in two furnished rooms with a shared kitchen across the hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We decided one day to each make a quilt; maybe we could make a little money on the side. From various projects we both had a small stockpile of fabrics. Using just what we already had on hand, we tore the fabric into strips. No templates, no measuring, scissors only to cut the length of the strip that might feel right. She had her pile and I had mine, and side by side we each began to lay the strips out vertically on the floor. Like brushstrokes, it felt to me.
When each composition seemed complete, I showed Molly how to sew the strips into rows and the rows to each other to make the pieced front. We decided on a common border, black, to frame them, so that in addition to the use of vertical strips they formed a kind of pair. Then I showed her how to sandwich together the front, the backing and the batting. We tied the three layers together, so technically these were coverlets, not quilts.
Over the course of making these two quilts side by side I realized quilts could be art. It was a life changing moment for me. Initially, Molly didn't agree with me and we had many lively discussions on the subject of quilts and the arts: literature and music as well as visual disciplines. By the end of each making one half of what we came to think of as the first pair of "The Pair Collection," I was shocked to realize I was an artist, quilting was my medium and that my work was intended not for a bed but a wall, properly lit with a space of its own. More significant than showing Molly the basic "how to" of what I had been doing for several years was my showing/convincing her that quilts could be art.
By the act of making a quilt and by our conversations Molly quickly became as excited as I was to explore quilt making as an art form. We knew of no one else who was doing this, had no relatives who made quilts. But it felt like anything was possible.
We decided not to try to sell the two quilts but to create a body of work and then try to find an art gallery to represent us as artists. The idea of pursuing paths as professional quilt artists was unheard of, but one we felt compelled to pursue.
After the ten days it took to create the first pair "Nocturne Regalis" (Molly) and "Migration" (Susan) we immediately embarked on creating a second pair, then a third, fourth and fifth. We envisioned the fourth and fifth pairs all together as a quadruple. Each quilt could stand alone but together formed a pair, and we learned as we went along. We took art books out from the library, and became aware among other things of the Holstein/Van der Hoof quilt exhibit that had taken place at the Whitney Museum in 1971.
Starting with the second pair, we began to hand quilt the three layers together, buying quilting frames from a Sears catalog, reveling in the life breathed into the pieced front. I likened the quilting stitches to drawing with shadows. After the fifth, the pair concept started to feel too limiting. The initial framework it provided was liberating, but it felt time to let that go. Then we just worked without the common agreed upon themes, but still in parallel, and we moved on to living in different places.
The 1971 Holstein/Van der Hoof Whitney exhibition was hugely successful. The collection traveled widely and in 1975 Jonathan Holstein and Gail Van der Hoof asked to include Molly's and my "Third Pair" -- "Greek" (Molly) and "Moonlit" (Susan) -- when their collection traveled to Japan. However they didn't want to acknowledge our authorships. This was in keeping with their practice of collecting quilts without recording their provenance, without acknowledging the artists, and in subsequent accounts of their Japan exhibit Molly's and my participation isn't mentioned.
Molly and I had a continual dialog about what we each were doing, exploring/sharing what the medium was capable of, always each working separately on our own quilts both in the brief period making the pairs and afterwards. We shared what we were reading, listening to and seeing. Sometimes when one of us was working, the other would read aloud. It was competitive in the best way possible: challenging, empowering, mutually supportive, a thoroughly engaging, nuanced, enlivening give and take. It would be most accurate to say that as art quilters we made each other.
We wanted a gallery, so we spent days taking the train to and from Manhattan, carrying our quilts through the streets as we had no photos. We experienced lots of rejection and ridicule with most people telling us it was impossible. After days we got a tip to try the offices of Vogue. I think it was Elizabeth (Liz) that we were supposed to see. We lugged the quilts into Manhattan and sat outside her office the first day, but she was too busy. The second day was the same. On the third day we had figured out where her office was and simple marched in and start laying out quilts on the floor as if we were rug merchants.
The editor stopped what she was doing. She took the gum out of her mouth and said Leo must see this. She called Leo and said she was bringing someone up. We had no idea who Leo was. We packed up the quilts up yet again, then schlepped the suitcases and duffel bags up the staircase to the next floor and were ushered in to the features editor at Vogue, Leo Lerman, a legendary, one of a kind, wonderful man, but we had no idea of who he was as we were ushered into his office.
We were ushered in by this rather nervous editor who had been avoiding us for three days and she proudly presents us to Leo. It was like we were a kind of "find", and Molly and I began to efficiently take out our "quilted tapestries," and lay them on the floor, but not much was said. We had learned to let the quilts speak for themselves. By this point, we'd been in quite a few galleries and offices, but Leo's stood out. His desk was clear except for an eggplant. And he wore purple socks. There were lots of windows. I think he rested his legs on the desk, or maybe it was just that I noticed his lovely colored socks under the table. Anyway, loving color and studying it carefully,the eggplant and matching socks stood out for me.
He looked at the quilted tapestries and I kid you not, within a few moments he said, "what do you want, the Museum of Modern Art?" Molly and I glanced at each other. We said yes, someday, but we're not ready yet. Right now we just want a reputable gallery to represent us. He picked up the phone and started calling art galleries: " I have two young women here in my office. They make what they call quilted tapestries. One looks about 13, one about 14. I think you should look at their work."
Soon after, maybe it was the same day, or a short time after, I can't remember, Molly and I went to meet Jill Kornblee, one of the Art Dealers Leo called. Her gallery at the time was located on the ground floor of a townhouse on West 80th St., (I think). Same routine, we showed her the quilts. She was a quiet, reserved person. She wore an obvious wig that was always a little bit askew and had very thick glasses. Without saying much, she said that she wanted to represent Molly and me.There would be a contract, and she would give us a show. Molly and I left her gallery and literally jumped and screamed for joy on the sidewalk, hugging each other. We had a two person show there in 1975 and I had a one person show in 1980. We had done what everyone said couldn't be done and opened doors not just for ourselves but hopefully for the art of quilt making.