Two Madison area women developed a friendship in fabric
Enthralled by the story quilts of Rumi O’Brien, Bobbie Malone wrote the book on her.
Author and historian Bobbie Malone had admired the imagination, whimsy and precision in the story quilts of Rumi O’Brien long before she met the Japanese American artist and Middleton resident. Through fabric and thread, each piece of O’Brien’s art tells a personal tale.
But more than 20 years passed between Malone first marveling at a poster of one of O’Brien’s quilts and briefly encountering her before an exhibit of her work in 2017.
It wasn’t that Malone hadn’t tried to track her down. When she asked someone how she could find O’Brien, Malone was told, “Rumi doesn’t really like being found.”
Yet Malone more than found her. Today the two women are friends. And O’Brien has consented to appear at events to promote Malone’s new book, “Striding Lines: The Unique Story Quilts of Rumi O’Brien.”
In her introduction to the book, Malone says she was encouraged to “move from being a fan from afar to an advocate in print. It has been a delightful journey.”
The book presents O’Brien’s work in the order she made it, including the small dolls she started crafting as gifts but later became popular in gallery gift shops. But the quilts — among them “Chasing Moles” (1989), “One Spring Day in a Canoe” (1999) and “I Love Jell-O, It Jiggles!” (2001) — share mundane moments in colorful and joyful ways.
At an event at the Middleton Public Library in November, O’Brien sat on a chair, her feet not reaching the floor, and shared stories about growing up in Japan with six siblings and enjoying her adult life as a housewife, gardener and artist in the Madison area.
She says a 1991 exhibit of her work at the former Jura Silverman Gallery in Spring Green had given her more than enough notoriety. “On quite a few occasions I had people tap me on the shoulder. It began to slightly annoy me,” she says.
That experience inspired the quilt “Hiding Under Shrubs, I’m Too Famous,” which O’Brien completed in 2000.
Malone finally met Rumi at the January opening of her 2017 exhibit “Crossing Mountains and Other Adventures: Story Quilts by Rumi O’Brien” at University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Human Ecology. The lack of a catalog to accompany the exhibit gave Malone the idea to produce “Striding Lines.”
O’Brien is certainly well known among local quilters. More than 80 people attended the library event, and half raised their hands when asked if they had seen the 2017 exhibit. O’Brien had taught some workshops in Madison, and her pieces were often featured at Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ annual fall show Quilts and Chrysanthemums, now discontinued, and at Jura Silverman Gallery before it was sold in late 2017.
Malone’s book puts O’Brien’s quilts in a larger context while also explaining her unique style. O’Brien was not trained in a particular technique by a teacher in Japan. She first encountered quilting as an American and started hand-quilting in Wisconsin in the 1980s.
O’Brien inherited her mother’s fastidiousness and thrift, refusing to let scraps of fabric go to waste. But her approach to storytelling is influenced by her father, Katsuji Matsumoto, a pioneering illustrator of shojo manga — comics targeted at teenage girls — which were popular in the 1930s through the 1950s.
In an essay in the book, Melanie Herzog, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Edgewood College, says O’Brien’s quilts are “visually rich and often astonishing works of art.” Another essayist is Marin Hanson, curator of International Collections at the International Quilt Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where an exhibit of O’Brien’s work is open through April.
Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.