The Past

Annie May JohnstonIt became apparent to me after teaching two semesters of quilting at Humber College, in Toronto, that my students wanted to remain together, to quilt, to learn, to share in their common interest in quiltmaking.  I remembered from my Ancient History classes in school about the Medieval Craft Guilds.  Their purpose was to teach and train craftspeople in various mediums and this, I thought would be the answer for quilters to stay connected, through a quilt guild.  Thus, with the help of the Humber College quilt students, we formed what was the second quilt guild in all of Canada at the time.  It was September, 1975.  Our first meeting was held in September of 1975 at Montgomery’s Inn, Toronto, an 1840’s inn operated now as a museum.  I arranged publicity for our first meeting and our guest speaker that night was an elderly quilter, by the name of Annie May Johnston.

Now Annie May Johnston could be compared to the Grandma Moses of quiltmaking.  Sometime earlier, Annie May called me one day after reading about my quilting classes at the College and her first words were “I think you like quilts”.  And then, “would you like to come and see some of my quilts?”  Since she lived in the village of Malton on the outskirts of  Toronto, not far from where I lived, we arranged for a day of viewing quilts.  Annie May lived in an old red brick farmhouse and as she opened the door, her lovely smile welcoming me, she invited me in to see a few of her quilts.  A few turned out to be more quilts than I could have imagined, carefully tucked in behind the player piano, stacked behind the front parlour couch, discreetly placed beneath the stairway to upstairs, and in her workroom near the kitchen.  There, sat an old fashioned four board quilting frame and quilts piled on top of chairs.  I was overwhelmed.  Most of Annie May’s quilts were of a traditional nature, taken from predesigned quilt patterns but latterly she had discovered fabric paints and she set about to record the history of the village of Malton, the churches, the railway station, the one room school house, the farms where she had been born and later, married and lived on, of farm animals and then, her spectacular quilt of the annual Calithumpian Day Parade.  Here is a link which tells you a little about Annie May Johnston:

Peel Article

The first meeting was a huge success entirely due to the presence of Annie May Johnston as our guest speaker.  Over one hundred people showed up and many joined the guild.  After that, our meetings were then moved to a local library in Etobicoke with continued success.  We even had one male member, Garnet Tracy, a retired teacher who made wonderful quilts.   Because we were the only quilt guild in Southern Ontario, quilters came from far and wide to attend our meetings.  Eventually, we helped organize the inception of the Niagara Heritage Guild and York Heritage Guild.  Rouge Valley also developed through quilters who had been our members.  Planning our meetings, finding guest speakers, kept me hopping, along with raising a family and teaching quilting and then in planning the First Canadian Quilt Conference in 1977.  The guild now is in it’s 46th year.

The Etobicoke Quilters Guild sponsored the first Canadian Quilt Conference at York University.  Because I’d been following the work of quilt artists in the United States, through Quilter’s Newsletter, from Colorado, now no longer in publication, I was able to connect with some wonderful resource people who were willing to fly to Toronto and present their quilt work and teach at our Conference.  Jean Ray Laury, who had a Master’s Degree in Design, from California, Jeff Gutcheon, a graduate of M.I.T. Architecture and his then wife, Beth, graduate of Harvard, Honors English degree, who had just published her legendary book, The Perfect Patchwork Primer, from New York; Virginia Avery, a self-taught clothing designer and creator of unusual work from Port Chester, NY who contacted me shortly after she’d agreed to attend our conference, one day, and asked if I had room for one more teacher in my budget.  She recommended that I contact a young man by the name of Michael James, who she said ‘was really going places in the quiltworld with his teaching and his quilts’.  And so, that is how Michael James, with a Masters in Fine Art, Rochester Institue of Technology, came to teach at our conference.  As well, we had two Canadians, Kim Ondaatje, Ontario College of Art graduate, artist and film maker and Mary Conroy, founder of the first Canadian Quilt Guild in Canada, from Sudbury, Ontario.

The conference was a huge success, being one of the first few conferences in North America at the time.  Quilters flew in from all over North America to attend the conference, which for me, went by in a blur of happiness,  exhaustion and over-stimulation.  Having always wanted to take a workshop with Jean Ray Laury, I drew a complete blank in her workshop, overwhelmed as I was to be in her presence.  And so it was, that on the Sunday morning following the conference I arranged for the resource guests and any other quilters who were waiting for transportation out of Toronto, to come to my home to spend the morning there as they awaited flights and train back home.  With Jeff and Jinny entertaining guests on our piano, the laughter and sheer excitement of being with such stimulatingly creative people stayed with me long after the conference.  It was in seeing their work that I began to realize that if I was ever going to grow, creatively in my own work, that further education would be needed.  In the visual arts.

Sadly, only two of our resource people live to this day, Beth Gutcheon Clements,a successful author and Michael James, now of Nebraska, whose quilt work indeed fulfilled Virginia Avery’s prediction of ‘a young man really going places in the quilt world’. Michael is a legend in his own time.