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Mike McNamara on quilting, AIDS and imperfection

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The modern quilt world's obsession with straight lines and symmetry rubs quilter Mike "Mac" McNamara the wrong way; he never cared for prescribed patterns. His emotionally evocative quilts reflect on life's biggest issues: desire, grief, politics and childlike wonder. Often as humorous as they are critical, his quilts are gifts of love for another person. McNamara's cartoonish, homoerotic quilt "Stand Back--He's Mine!" is currently on display at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum; Westword recently spoke with McNamara about his life as a quilter.

See also: David Charity addresses hunger, human trafficking and other social issues through quilts

Westword:How did you get into quilting? Mike "Mac" McNamara: Back in 1976, I said, "I can make one of those things," and so I did. I took apart sweaters and shirts and things you don't normally make quilts out of. I hand-sewed them into a big old quilt that I brought home to my folks for their anniversary. It started to fall apart right away, and when I looked at it years later, I realized, it wasn't even a rectangle.

My mom said, "So you like working with fabric? Well, let's get your Auntie Vee's old machine fired up."

We went to my grandmother, Auntie Vee's sister, and we said, "Can we get Auntie Vee's sewing machine, because she's in a nursing home and she doesn't need it?"

My grandmother said, "Of course you can have it ... for eighty dollars."

Not only did we have to buy the machine from my grandmother, we had to have it rewired, because it was so old. It was a costly investment. That was my first sewing machine. I've been making quilts ever since.

Then AIDS happened, and people were making those AIDS quilts for people for the Names Project (the AIDS Memorial Quilt). I met a bunch of women working on them, and we had a little quilting group. We'd meet at each other's homes once a month and show each other what we were working on.

Talk about your involvement with the Names Project.

When I look back, I realize it was sort of the greatest moments of love and good luck in my life. Not only would I make these panels, but then I would go to Washington, D.C., where we would display them on the main mall between the Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial. It didn't cover the whole mall when we first did it, but today it would. Each panel was six-feet by three-feet. It's the size of a common grave. They were quilts you would make for a loved one that you had lost to AIDS.

I not only made them for my friends, but I would help people make theirs. People would say, "I don't know how to sew." I made a number of them. There's always some fun theme I'd use. I made one for a friend of mine in college. He was a very popular guy in school. His name was Bob Williams. He was into his African heritage, African dance and African identity. My mom had this wild old shirt that was popular in the '70s. It had a wide collar and big sleeves; it looked like something he would wear, like a very African shirt. I took it, sewed it to some fabric and sewed in the fabric, "Bob Williams." I made that for him.

Continue reading to learn more about the Names Project and why McNamara thinks quilting is about more than design.

How did the smaller pieces fit into the larger quilt?

The pieces would be sewn together in eight-foot squares. The way the display works with the Names Project, each of these eight-foot squares were folded origami style. People would grab a corner, and at the very last minute, they would take a corner, unfold it, and it would billow up in its place on the grass. It's a beautiful ceremony we would do. You see hundreds of these eight-foot squares full of names. It's amazing to watch them all unfold, one after another. It's a very moving monument to people. It was moving emotionally and literally, because the wind would catch it. There are so many squares now that they measure them in lengths of football fields. It's acres wide now. Some were made for individuals, and some were made for groups. It's really very loving. Talk about "Stand Back -- He's Mine!?"

I made a quilt for the Gay Men's Chorus fundraiser last year; I made a tribute to Harvey Milk. He was always a hero of mine, because he was always a great dude. The guy that bought it hung it in his restaurant for the longest time. It's a restaurant that's right in the Castro, a very gay area of town, and it's attended by a lot of gay folks, as well as straight folks too. It's called Eureka. It was hanging there, but then I needed to borrow it for an annual show.

He said, "Sure,"

I said, "I'll make you another quilt to hang."

I had all this fabric with these hunks and hunkettes, all these hot-looking people. One of the cartoon characters, a super hero, he's saying, "Stand Back. He's Mine." That's how I came up with the name of that quilt. It's just all these hunks. It's a fun way to put all those fabrics together.

Talk about your experience is in the traditional quilt world with this kind of work.

I'm flattered by people who say, "I recognized your quilt right away, Mac." It has a patchwork feel, but there is a sense of the question: "How does he put that together?" It really looks kind of haphazard, doesn't it? I feel like I have a successful quilt if people look and laugh or if they look and say, "Oh, I could have done that." I hope I make it look like it's easy to make. It's actually more difficult than doing the straight-line thing. I also feel like I have a successful quilt if people say, "Oh, that looks like kids put it together." I love kid art so much. It's so genuine. I like the sense that kids, before they learn any rules, will start drawing things. When you look at a drawing by kids, you'll find out what's important to them. It's always fun to see how kids put together their artwork. It's always exaggerated a little. It's always hard for adults to make kid art, even though you see attempts at it. I love that feel that's fragmented and dispersed.

Talk about the relationship between grief, emotion and quilting.

There's this famous quilt from the 1800s where you can see all these caskets that commemorate a family who had many losses. Earlier quilts all express some emotional thing going on. When you go to some big quilt shows that give away prizes, that side of the brain that's into accuracy and measurement is what's used to judge the quilts. They'll hang it over the edge of a table and prove that the line is absolutely straight.

I once asked a couple of judges, "What does that have to do with the reason that person made that quilt? What if that person isn't into accuracy, but is more into making a statement of love and care and loss, or making a political statement?" Quilts can be used to make political statements too. The reasons why we make quilts vary; we express ourselves through our quilts.

McNamara's quilt "Stand Back -- He's Mine," will be on display as part of "MANifestations: Twelfth Biennial Exhibition of Quilts Made by Men" at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum, 1213 Washington Avenue in Golden, through April 29. For more information, go to Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum or call 303-277-0377.

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