Jane Dunnewold Part 1: Making Time
Jane Dunnewold is an accomplished artist, teacher and author based in Texas.
When “surface design” was becoming popular as a field, she founded the Surface Design Studio at the Southwest School of Craft in San Antonio, Texas, and grew the department from 3 classes the first semester to 16 classes ten years later. During that time (1996) her notes were picked up and published as Complex Cloth by Fiber Studio Press (Bothell, WA.).
Jane has also written and/or co-authored five additional books, including Creativity Strength Training: Prompts, Exercises and Stories to Inspire Artistic Genius– to be published by North Light Books in May 2016.
Her work has been included in exhibitions all over the world, including one person exhibitions in the UK, Australia, and at the Schweinfurth Art Center (NY) and University of Louisville (KY) In 2016, New Work: Inspired by the Masters will open at the Visions Quilt Museum in San Diego, CA, and Global Inspirations will be shown at Fibreworks, north of Vancouver, Canada.
In the first edition of this in-depth 3-part interview with Jane, she recalls her early life and the initial influences that would shape her future career.
Grandmother’s button collection
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium?
Jane Dunnewold: There was never a time when I wasn’t enthralled by textiles. As a tiny child my favorite activity was playing with my grandmother’s button collection. My sisters and I played Barbie House on a large quilt with vivid colors (the blocks were the rooms) made by my grandmother. Each Barbie doll had elaborate cardboard and cloth furniture in her “room” and improvised outfits from scraps of cloth. My mother sewed all our clothes, including fancy dresses for holidays. I had a fur “muff” and coat with a velvet collar. I learned to sew at the age of 10, learned to embroider in high school, and to upholster furniture in my twenties.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
My father was a pastor of a country church and the quilt group met every Thursday, sharing lunch and quilting the entire afternoon. I couldn’t wait to ride my bicycle to the church after school so I could sit under the quilt frame and listen to them talk – watching the needles poke gently through the fabric in a regular, even rhythm. When we moved from that church to another in a larger town, those women gave me a large quilt with a “tree of life” appliquéd on it. (A kit I later discovered, when I saw the same quilt at the Houston Quilt Show!) I still have the quilt although it is quite tattered from use.
My female relatives were knitters and sewers and quilters. My parents were hugely influential – when they needed something – furniture, painting in a room, wall papering, etc – they did it themselves. If they didn’t know how, they learned. They instilled self-reliance in us; which has carried me through my entire life.
They also took us to museums on a regular basis, and I adored the paintings and sculptures we saw. My father was condescending toward Claes Oldenburg’s giant stuffed sculptures – soft sculptures of real life objects – and scoffed at them, but I loved the fact that they were made from fabric. His work was one of the first influences that led me to textiles as an art form, although I was fortunate to grow up when textiles were becoming a major presence as ART – so in my 20’s I was able to see work from all the important artists in the field – Katherine Westphal, Jack Lenor Larson, Sheila Hicks – and then later, artists who were transforming the quilt into the art quilt – Nancy Crow, Michael James, and others.
Life according to my own rules and desires
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I did not set out to become an artist, although I was always creative and had my hands in various craft projects. In university I majored in psychology and religion, intending to enter either the ministry, or pursue an advanced psychology degree.
As it turned out, I fell in love with a musician. Instead of graduate school, I decided to go with him to Boston, Massachusetts for a year. I picked up a waitressing job in a restored train depot. The money was great but the hours were even better. I had plenty of time to pursue my interests. I enrolled in classes at the Massachusetts College of Art, and took the first quilting class Michael James ever taught there! My technique totally sucked. I didn’t have the patience to make corners match, so my quilts were misshapen and poorly constructed. It didn’t help that I tried to make a Rob Peter to Pay Paul pattern (elaborate curves and corners) with satin polyester. I was definitely/defiantly green, and am sure Michael thought I was a disaster.
That year I also saved enough money to spend a week on Nantucket Island studying with Erica Wilson, who was my idol because of her fantastic embroidery books. I was out of my league – the class was populated with wealthy middle-aged mothers and members of the Embroidery Guild of America, but I was smitten. I adored everything about stitching.
Fast forward: I married the musician, he won a job with the Symphony in San Antonio, we packed up everything and drove across the country to Texas, which may as well have been another country, it was so foreign to us. The very first thing I did, upon arriving, was to call Wilanna Bristow – an embroiderer whose work was included in Erica Wilson’s books. She agreed to meet me, and suggested studying at the Southwest Craft Center, where I took every class she offered.
This association with the Craft Center was valuable, because in 1990, after two failed marriages – the second of which led to a painful bankruptcy and divorce – I hit a personal wall – and hit it hard. I realized I’d been living my life according to other people’s expectations – my father, my husbands…I was divorced and broke, with a 2 year old daughter. Maybe it was a gamble, but it was time to begin living life according to my own rules and desires. So I set out to determine them.
I went to the Craft Center and began a three month campaign to convince the director to establish a Surface Design Studio. I bugged him relentlessly – calling and dropping by – every week. When he finally hired me, I know he wasn’t fond of me. I’d just worn him down. He gave me two large, cluttered rooms, a pittance of a salary, and told me I’d better have classes ready to offer at the start of the Summer term. I was ecstatic. And I did.
Thus began my career as an artist educator. I left the Craft Centre (now the Southwest School of Art) ten years later. My book was doing well, offers to teach and exhibit were promising. I left the school without a steady income, but never looked back.
Does anything in Jane’s story resonate with you? How did your journey start? Let us know in the comments below. And remember to look out for the next part of our interview with Jane.