Mike McNamara on quilting, AIDS and imperfection
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.
Mike McNamara Quilter Mike "Mac" McNamara prides himself on his emotionally evocative and often asymmetrical 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.
San Francisco quilter, Mike "Mac" McNamara, developed his techniques and style during the AIDS crisis through his work with the Names Project.
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.