TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Bruce Quilt and Joyce Levy

There is a woman in the suburbs of Chicago, Skokie, who is dear to my heart. Joyce Levy, a hippie at heart, has a brilliant mind, a spirit of fire, a passion for textiles, and often lies bed-ridden, imprisoned in a body that has survived cancer but is now tortured by lymphoedema. I met Joyce many years ago when I was teaching quilting at the Textile Arts Centre, a now-defunct wonderful Chicago institution. She had served on the board there and later commissioned me to do four quilts for her.

Bruce, the mathematician

You see, Joyce was not the only one to fight cancer in her family. Her brother and only sibling, Bruce, was taken by the disease. The quilts Joyce commissioned honored Bruce whom she dearly loved. Bruce was a minimalist and little of earthly possessions. But, one thing he had a lot of was t-shirts. Mostly nature themes, some academic ones and some funny ones. My job was to take these shirts and make them into quilts for Bruce's widow, Leslie, his parents, his best friend and finally, one for Joyce.

I was on a roll with the first three. I found that I didn't like working with the t-shirt fabric much and had to use stabilizers to keep them firm and in place. This thickened the fabrics and made quilting them more challenging. I didn't even quilt the first one, for their parents:

Notice how the back sags when it is hung if there is no quilting. In the second one, I used bark cloth and tied the pieces together. I don't have photos of that one, but it was interesting. That one went to his best friend. The third one was for Leslie, Bruce's wife. She didn't want one that was too big, so the project was fairly easy. I did hand quilt this one, following simple lines around the panels. The photo below shows Joyce on the left and Leslie on the right with the front and back of the quilt:

Now, for Joyce's quilt. As she became progressively more incapacitated by the pain inflicted by her condition, she spent more time in bed. She wanted a quilt that she could use and that would be dominated by her favorite color, purple. I got the top and back pretty much finished. That was more than FIVE years ago!!! My life got complicated with my floundering gallery business, I decided I wanted to move from Chicago, had to figure out where to go, how to do it, we closed the gallery, had to get part time work while I went through 20 years of stuff, finally moved, had her quilt in a box forever, and then finally got it finished recently.

You would think that someone might get a bit peeved when they had fully paid for a project and not received it for all this time. Not Joyce. Instead, she hired me for some part-time work during that transitional period between closing the gallery and moving to Paducah. Joyce has a huge collection of Edward Gorey books.
My job was to help catalog them so that she knew what she had and where she needed to continue to grow her collection. Gorey was an eccentric illustrator and writer who was born in Chicago. He died in 2000, leaving an extensive legacy of illustrations, books and contributions. I knew of his work from his PBS intro to the mystery series:

I passed many a pleasant afternoon in Joyce's company, learning about Gorey and enjoying Joyce's rich story-telling of her brother Bruce, her Jewish merchant roots in the South, her world roaming professor father, the Ganesh-collecting mother and all kinds of other fascinating insights into society, history, politics, art, travel, and so on. Joyce is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, yet she can cry as the story demands and laugh through her pain.

So, I moved to Kentucky and her unfinished quilt remained in a box. I was overwhelmed with finding my niche here, getting my online business set up, but more than that, I was faced with the challenge of not having a good work space to finish such a large piece (the quilt is king size). Plus, she wanted it to be thick and fluffy. My machine wouldn't go through it and it would have been a bear to hand quilt it and I didn't think it would look good tied. My quilting skills have improved since I first started working on her commissions, so the floppy look of the first one was no longer acceptable.

The solution came through my friend, Pam, who is a part of my fiber group here in Paducah. This is what she does for a living. She has one of those big, industrial quilting machines. I had made a wallpaper purse which she coveted, so we traded and we're both happy and now Joyce can be happy, too!

Bruce quilt front and back:

I embroidered phrases that Bruce was famous for throughout the quilt. My favorite is "Please answer the questions I forget to ask." The one shown below is also a good one, "I try to make the proper sympathetic noises."

One of the things I like about functional quilts is that when you wrap it around yourself, it's like wearing a big hug. Now Joyce will have her hug from her dear Bruce and hopefully, I can redeem myself with a hug, too.

Greetings, My Favorite Sister!



  1. Wonderful quilt-wonderful story. I know Joyce is thrilled. I love the quote "please answer the questions I forget to ask"... as soon as I read it, I ran over and wrote it on my studio door! ;)

  2. Nice story. That purple quilt is a BEAUTY. I too collect Edward Gorey, having been introduced to his work in the late seventies. I became an instant addict. :)


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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