Fire and Ice….and Bourbon

By Laura Ross

Courtesy Photos

Louisville-based textile artist MJ Kinman knows diamonds are a girl’s best friend. The brilliant gem, along with a host of other jewels, has always intrigued Kinman, who takes that love of sparkle to a new level with dramatic and extraordinary handmade quilts.

Kinman’s popular and highly-coveted gemstone series of quilts have led her to bourbon – but in a good way. Her latest masterpiece, an amber and gold-infused gem quilt, is now displayed at Maker’s Mark distillery following a serendipitous meeting with Rob Samuels.

Last year, Kinman was invited to the annual “Sip-osium” sponsored by the Bourbon Women’s Association and was asked to showcase an exhibition of her quilts at the event. Rob Samuels, an eighth-generation distiller and Maker’s chief operating officer, was a keynote speaker at the Sip-osium. Samuels was also on the hunt for a unique, handcrafted piece of Kentucky-made artwork to hang in a key location at the distillery.

He and Kinman struck up a conversation, and a few weeks later, she received a call from Samuels asking her to submit a proposal for a custom bourbon quilt for Maker’s Mark. Kinman was spirited down to Marion County for a private tour with Bill Samuels Jr., who Kinman says was full of inspiration and great stories. The symbolism of fire and bourbon immediately struck her.

“Fire is part of the heritage of Maker’s. You can’t make bourbon without it. The charring of the barrels, the heat from the stills and in the case of Maker’s Mark, fire represents the passing of the torch from one generation to the next – from Bill Sr. to Bill Jr., and now to Rob Samuels,” said Kinman.

“I needed to find a beautiful topaz as my inspiration,” she said. 

Also by Kinman: “Fire and Ice’

“And, what evolved was a tapestry of browns, golds and reds that really bring together fire, liquid and gemstones in a way that honors the Maker’s Mark tradition.”

The result is a massive teardrop image on the five-by-nine-foot quilt that, depending on your interpretation, could be a flame or a drop of bourbon. Kinman says it’s both. 

“I wanted the Maker’s Mark quilt to resemble a beautiful topaz with rich amber colors dancing in the light. I hand paint all my material, so I worked to get the hues rich and dark, just like well-aged bourbon,” she explained. She added the Samuel family logo at the top, where it floats “like smoke.”

The quilt, which took upwards of 10 weeks to craft, is hung above the fireplace in the dining area of Star Hill Provisions restaurant at the distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, in August.

Kinman’s love of quilting evolved from a family tradition to a profession as part of her long journey that included decades working in corporate America. “My mom was raised as a Mennonite and her ancestors were Amish, so I come naturally to quilting,” said Kinman. “I started to sew in Hastings, Nebraska, when I was a fifth grader as part of 4H Club. My mom and I would quilt together, and she’d always say we had it in our DNA.”

Kinman’s fascination with gemstones arrived by mail one day. She received an advertisement from the Kentucky Center for the Arts about an orchestra concert in 1991, and the flyer included a glued-on “gemstone” that sparked her imagination. “I knew nothing about gemology, but I was intrigued by the facets and light and thought, that could be a quilt,” she said. Kinman researched ways to cut fabric into “facets,” using freezer paper that could be cut and ironed onto fabric in a pattern.

“I had to find the chaos out of all this color coming from the light in the gemstone,” she said. “I stared at the gemstone for hours and suddenly figured out how the light was all hanging. I started picking out the individual facets. Once you see the cutting pattern, then you have to make sense of all the refractions of light, and you have to play with the value contrasts that lead your eye across the gemstone.”

“Blush”

For Kinman, it was both visual and mathematical. “It’s a desire to make sense of things,” she said. “Our brains are pattern recognition machines, and I knew there was a pattern in there somewhere. I had to find the clues. It’s a crazy sense of curiosity and visual stimulation in that (the) eye is naturally drawn toward patterns.”

While she crafted her quilts, Kinman also worked full-time. “I was a social worker for the first 100 years of my career,” she joked, “and then I was in the corporate world, running IT programs and doing project management for a large corporation. I loved my job until I didn’t. It became clear I needed to do something different and get my head into the diamonds. I was at the top of my game, making more money than ever, but I was miserable. I was a project monster, not a project manager. My husband Joe encouraged me and taught me that regret is a terrible thing.”

She made the leap into quilting full-time in 2014. “When I jump off a cliff, my husband holds the net,” she laughed. It was a fortuitous leap. Today, she custom designs her diamond quilts, is preparing to launch a fabric line, has a TV show in the works and is teaching and exhibiting her quilts nationwide.

The quilt for Maker’s Mark is part of a bourbon-inspired quilt series. Kinman is currently in discussions with other distilleries along the Bourbon Trail, including Castle and Key, on designing additional works. She’s also developing a gemstone series of quilts in collaboration with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s famous gem collection, which includes the Hope diamond.

Kinman’s inspiration sparkles like the gems she adores. “A mentor told me once that you need to be as excited about your work as you are about your excitement for other’s work (that) you admire,” she said. “And, once you say ‘yes’ to your passion, the universe starts working in your favor. Wonderful things can happen.” VT

See more of MJ Kinman’s textile art at mjkinman.com, @MJKinman709 on Instagram and @MJ Kinman,TextileArtist on Facebook.