The Story Quilts of Rumi O’Brien

The Story Quilts of Rumi O’Brien

Artist Rumi O’Brien’s quilts are intimate narratives of her life. Whether set in her everyday world of Madison, Wisconsin or in an imaginary landscape, the quilts are always deeply personal. 
 
Rumi O’Brien grew up in Tokyo, Japan, the daughter of seminal manga (comic book) artist Katsuji Matsumoto. Later, she moved to the United States to train as a watercolorist. For the past 50 years she has lived in Madison, where, several decades ago, she also began making quilts.
 
O’Brien’s quilts defy categorization or pigeon-holing. They reflect her cross-cultural background, sometimes displaying America’s block-style quilt format and sometimes using Japan’s episodic narrative structure—telling a story with a series of short, visual snippets. Each figure—often a stand-in for O’Brien herself—seems to beckon us to join in a commonplace or fantastical adventure: hunting for wild mushrooms or escaping from gargantuan fishes, floating in canoes or dancing on mountains of strawberry gelatin. She shares with us her world—real and imagined, observed and felt. 

Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition

One Spring Day in a Canoe
1999
Madison, Wisconsin
Collection of the Artist 

“I was a hard worker—in the house, in the garden—and I did all sorts of handiwork like sewing, spinning, and knitting. If my husband suggested going somewhere, I would prefer to remain in the backyard, which I liked so much. But work can be tiring and so I began thinking it would be nice to put us in a canoe and let the current of Six Mile Creek near our home take us gently along its course. 

“So, I did that. I got a large piece of cloth ready and let the creek meander upon it. From the start, I enjoyed the ride, no frantic catching up with this or that project, but just relaxing and basking in the sun. On each side of the creek the meadows were alive with spring grasses and the returning geese were making merry in small groups. As usual my husband had a book along and was probably oblivious to the surroundings. We usually have coffee and cake around ten o’clock at home, but we couldn’t easily brew coffee in a canoe. The air was warm and the current was gentle. It was really nice, this relaxed canoe ride.”

Pauline and Gil Dug a Pond; It Took a Whole Summer
2002
Madison, Wisconsin
Collection of the Artist 

“Pauline and her husband Gil were good friends and mentors. They were creative people. After they retired, they bought a piece of land in Vernon County and built a home, a painting studio for Pauline, and a garden shed. Now and then, my husband Jim and I packed a lunch with fruit pies and cookies and went to visit them. When we reached their home on one such trip, Gil said, ‘We dug a pond. Do you want to hike down there and see it?’ Of course! Gil led the way on a narrow path weaving down and down among the trees. Suddenly a good-sized pond came into view, its water pure and sparkling from a nearby spring. Lucy, the stray dog Gil had adopted, came along. 

“Meadows and hills enclosed the place and no home or other buildings were to be seen. In this utterly serene spot, Gil showed us the large rocks lining one side of the pond bank. The idea of digging the pond came when Gil noticed overflow from the spring pooled around those rocks. We had walked down a long way and the hike back up was arduous!”

The Journey Home
1984
Madison, Wisconsin
On loan from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection 
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Gift of Rumi and Jim O'Brien

“I walked back from the center of Madison one day, having appeared as a witness in small claims court. Home was in Middleton, and I was free of chores, so I decided to walk the five miles back since the weather was nice. I followed State Street and kept going until I got sidetracked at Hilldale Shopping Mall. Once I had my fill of window shopping, I kept going. I sure was glad to reach home and kick my shoes off!

“Something was not right the next morning. My feet hurt. You see, I had walked all the way home wearing high-heels, for I had appeared in front of a judge. I went to a foot doctor, and he ordered me to rest a few days. I had always admired patchwork quilts and decided the time had come to try quilting. At home I reached for the cabinet where I stored my prized, oft-washed chambray and printed cotton scraps, all in medium and soft shades of indigo blue. These scraps would become hills in my quilt. From there, the idea of including a figure walking over the hills and down into the valleys came easily.”

Crossing Mountains
1991
Madison, Wisconsin
Collection of the Artist 

“I had a phone call. My father passed away. I expected that one day I would learn this over the phone. I thought about how my father was, how he told us stories. He always began ‘Mukashi, mukashi…,’ which means ‘A long, long time ago. . . .’ Most of my father’s stories were folk tales and ghost stories, like this one. A man trekking over the dark mountains through dark woods sees something bright white glowing in the distance. As he approaches this figure, he hears sobbing and realizes it is a woman alone in the forest. He’s a kind person, so walks up to her and asks, ‘May I help you?’ The woman doesn’t respond, so he asks again, ‘May I help you?’ Finally the woman looks up at him with a featureless face, as smooth and white as an egg!”

Jan Goes Morel Hunting and in the End Buys a Rose
1995
Madison, Wisconsin
Collection of the Artist 

“It was May—morel mushroom time! Jan, my Polish friend, left home early one morning and trekked over hills and valleys in the country looking for a harvest and finding none. To comfort himself, he stopped at the Bruce Nursery at the end of the day and bought a rose plant. There I met him and he recounted the day’s disappointing venture. He said, ‘Mushroom season is over.’ 

“A few days later I was shopping at Brennan’s market and there I saw a heap of morels in a basket. So I decided to play a practical joke. In the quilt you see Jan trekking over the hills and valleys of Wisconsin and at the bottom of the quilt you see him with a big smile, holding a pot with a rose plant. But, you see, morels were there, hiding under ferns, and he missed them. Well, I am afraid Jan was not the least amused by my quilt!”

Crisis
1993-1995
Madison, Wisconsin
Collection of the Artist 

“A quarrel with my older brother inspired me to make three quilts: Crisis; Digging Down, Digging Deep [both seen here]; and Pain. I’m a happy person and seldom felt the kind of turmoil within me that my brother’s words caused. It was a new feeling. It was interesting. And these quilts are a record of the experience.

“My brother’s harsh words agitated me. It was like I was surrounded by huge waves in a stormy sea, tossed up and down in the emotion. I started feeling like a big fish was ready to swallow me, chasing me, and I was scared. I worked and worked at the quilt, but could not create angry fish. Then it came to me that a face without eyebrows always seems placid. So here you see fish with eyebrows, the first such kind in the world! In contrast, the faraway figures have minimal facial expressions. They have almost no detail at all. Their arms do not flail about. I believe this is the way to combat a crisis—just ride it out.”

Digging Down, Digging Deep
1993-1995
Madison, Wisconsin
Collection of the Artist 

“To make the quilts, it was necessary for me to remember the argument with my brother. Of course, what I recalled had to be accurate. To my surprise, I became aware that my brain had stored all of the happenings clearly. Even in the middle of the night, I woke up remembering segments that linked this and that. The deeper I dug, the more I recovered things I had long forgotten.”

I love Jello, It Jiggles!
2001
Madison, Wisconsin
Collection of the Artist 

“Many years ago, we had some friends over for dinner. Conversation turned to cooking and eating. One American friend said that American cooking was represented by Jello—it wasn’t art, it was terrible. Being polite, I did not respond, but inwardly, I thought I must defend Jello. It has its place.

“After the dishes were done, I quickly sketched on a sheet of paper a design in pencil, but the colors were bright in my head. Many years later, the sketch evolved into what you see. I’m sure you agree that, at least once, you took delight in a jiggling, wobbly spoonful of colorful Jello.”

Works in the Exhibition

Gallery Photos

Gallery Photos
Three Rumi O'Brien quilts on display in a gallery.
Two Rumi O'Brien quilts on display in a gallery.
Two Rumi O'Brien quilts on display in a gallery.
Three Rumi O'Brien quilts on display in a gallery.
Two Rumi O'Brien quilts on display in a gallery.
Three Rumi O'Brien quilts on display in a gallery.
Gallery Photos
Support for this exhibition has been provided by Friends of the IQM Logo. The Nebraska Arts Council, a state agency, has supported this exhibition through its matching grants program funded by the Nebraska Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. Visit www.artscouncil.nebraska.gov for more information. Additional support provided by Japan Foundation.
Event Date
Wednesday, October 2, 2019 to Sunday, April 12, 2020