The Constellation Prize: Jimmy McBride's quilts

“He had to teach himself how to stitch, which is why the edges are a little wonky,” explains Jimmy McBride of his creative alter ego, a space trucker who quilts to while away intergalactic travel miles. McBride grew up in the mid-Western American state of Indiana. Luck placed his hometown near an Amish community and at an early age quilts, which the Amish are famously accomplished at producing, where well within his radar. Fast-forward a few decades and by 2002 McBride had gradated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where the department of Fiber and Material Studies is lead by Anne Wilson. But McBride wasn’t a textile convert at this stage, choosing instead to study within the Painting Department where he explains he “made a mix of painting and sculpture that changed every six months”.

The one thing McBride remembers as constant was an interest in science fiction. Only later did he teach himself to quilt when he decided to create one as a wedding gift for a friend’s child and determined that “a galaxy theme made sense.” Today McBride spends his days creating quilts and embellishing the increasingly elaborate “mythology of the space trucker who has time on his hands to quilt”. As his alter ego explains, “There’s a lot of time to kill up here so I downloaded a grandma program and she’s been teaching me how to quilt. There’s no "log cabins" or "poinsettias" around so I just stare out the window until something catches my eye. It’s nice every once in a while to shoot the shit with a fellow traveller, or get caught up in the new dawn celebrations in the outer rim, but mostly it’s just me; with a lot of time on my hands.”

The scale of McBride’s current undertakings now justify a little technology and a sewing machine is used to assemble the increasingly complex designs seen in works such as “R136” and “Ambush”. Reference images are often sourced from Hubble telescope pictures downloaded from the Internet. Each composition is projected onto brown paper and traced, before fabrics are assembled and the lengthy task of stitching begins. Second hand clothing such as button down shirts and skirts contribute to much of the material used – in part to continue the quilting tradition of make-do-and-mend, but also because, as he explains, “a space trucker is not going to run into a fabric store in space.” Flannel shirts are the favoured quilting material of the space trucker, which is understandable if you imagine that the marvellous views from his cab probably can’t compensate for the chill at night.

Many of McBride’s recent quilts share an abstracted quality that relies on organic rather than geometric shapes. The curving compositions stand in contrast to the patterned fabric McBride often selects – plaids and checks that offer grids of precise measurement and control – that are cut and reassembled into forms that suggest rather than measure the galaxy. For those unfamiliar with the Hubble telescope’s remarkable images, a quick search on the Internet reveals the uncanny accuracy of these quilts to capture both their image and mood in cloth.

To date, followers of the space trucker’s creations tend to emerge from two camps: traditional quilt enthusiasts and what McBride refers to as the “Geekdom of science fiction”. The two camps may have had little reason to cross paths before McBride offered an introduction, but both often share a simple response: “who knew you could combine these two subjects?” The ‘Geekdom’ of science fiction admirers should be no more underestimated than the enthusiasm of quilters. As McBride explains the content of some of his new works to me in a recent conversation, I realise that my galactic knowledge is lacking. The double bed sized quilt “Ambush”, for instance, contains what he refers to as an “astronomical pun”. For those in the know, you may have caught that the machine stitched star cluster of Pleiades (also known as Messier object 45) is flipped in the quilt. Obviously this is an ambush of epic proportions.

The Messier catalogue numbers as well as New General Catalogue numbers appear throughout McBride’s choice of titles. First published in 1771, the Messier catalogue was established by the French astronomer Charles Messier to record objects in space that were not considered to be comets. For example “M64” is not a motorway but object 64 on the Messier list also known as the “Black Eye Galaxy”. In McBride’s abstracted version, a central swirl of sensible plaids and check fabrics rotate around the bright white centre on a child-sized quilt. The more recent New General Catalogue, used in titles such as “NGC2264” identifies more than one astronomical object, in this case the aptly named “Cone Nebula” and “Christmas Tree Cluster” located a mere 2600 light years from earth.

Despite their content, the abstracted images manage to feel remarkably homely. Rather than a scientific rendering, McBride softens the facts and presents these far away constellations as remarkable, yet comfortingly familiar. Scale continues to reflect the home with works such as “Pillars” and “Ambush” made to fit the size of a double bed and “M64” and “NGC2264” made for a child’s use.

“Eventually I would like to let people into the expanded story,” McBride explains of the narrative of his alter ego responsible for the creation of these quilts. “As people [journalists, curators, collectors] contact me, I expand the story.” I inquire if McBride ever strays from his galactic content and he points me to a quilt currently underway that is based on an image of wood grain. A return to earthly things? “Wood in future will potentially be a contraband material in space because of the expense,” he explains. Silly me, I hadn’t thought of that.

McBride’s work is part of the exhibition “Take Me To Your Leader! The Great Escape Into Space” at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo, Norway (15.10.2010–30.01.2011)

Embroidery magazine (Nov./Dec. 2010: 30-35)