Most of us who’ve seen Disney’s “Snow White” have been content to be wowed by the oversized diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires in the Seven Dwarfs’ mine, glinting and glimmering in all their Technicolor glory. For quilt artist MJ Kinman, they were more than eye candy—they were artistic inspiration. “I’ve always loved gems,” MJ says when thinking back on the impact the movie had on her as a young girl. “They just glow and are saturated with color.” For the past 20 years, MJ has turned that passion into her life’s work with large, pieced quilts that depict close-up views of faceted gemstones ablaze with light.
Actually, she started working on the problem of how to replicate a gemstone in fabric not long after she started quilting almost 30 years ago. A flyer from an arts center that featured a photo of an illuminated diamond caught her attention. She thought to herself, ‘These are all just straight lines; there’s got to be a way to make a quilt out of it.’ But the question was, how? With so many shapes, how would one go about putting them together into gemstone quilts?
MJ says she “just stared and stared” at the flyer until, “Boom! I saw the control to the chaos. When you see the facets, you can see how it works.” She had quit her job as a social worker during that period so she had the time to put into working on how to design a pattern. After much reading and skill-building, she adapted Cynthia England’s “picture piecing” technique of using freezer paper templates to make her first diamond quilt, “Solitaire,” in 1998.
In the years since, MJ has created a collection of gemstone quilts brilliant enough to rival a Tiffany & Co. display. Considering she was raised by a Mennonite mother, herself descended from the Amish, in a little Nebraska town surrounded by cornfields, MJ’s focus on luxury objects might be unexpected. “I’m the least glamorous person you’ll ever want to meet,” she says. “My diamonds are my divas.” As far as she’s concerned, it’s what’s inside that counts, whether you’re talking about a person or a jewel. “I love the idea of a sparkling personality, with the light that comes out,” she says. “And that’s what gems are: the light just bounces around inside and comes out.”
In addition to taking commissions for original quilts, MJ teaches workshops; sells her own patterns and block of the month kits through her website; and has designed her first fabric collection for Northcott, Facets (inspired by her quilt “Lila”). Her goal with all of these efforts is to show quilters how they can capture something as intangible as light moving through earth’s hardest substances and recreate it using the softest, most comforting of materials.
If she were to make a quilt for a glamorous movie star, MJ knows exactly who she would pick and what she’d make. For Julia Roberts, she’d make a rich ruby quilt inspired by the iconic red gown the actress wore in “Pretty Woman.” And, of course, she’d have to make something square cut or pear shape for Marilyn Monroe—after all, diamonds are a girl’s best friend.