Written by Meg Cox
Sometimes when the kid of a celebrity shows up in the same field, people carp about the rookie's awkwardness. But in the case of Mary Fons, daughter of quilting legend Marianne Fons, that's actually part of the point.
In her chosen fields of writing and performing, Mary is a seasoned veteran, working professionally as a freelance writer and earning a place for herself in Chicago's cutting-edge theater scene. She's well known for her work in poetry "slams" (which are more like stand-up comedy than staid readings), and writes both books and plays. Her first full-length play - in which she stars- will debut in Chicago in the spring.
Although she grew up in Iowa making the odd doll quilt with her mother, Mary never thought she'd take up quilting at all, let alone professionally. "It wasn't automatic for me, it didn't seem recreational," she says in an interview. "Quilting was something my mom did, for work."
But in recent years, several events pushed her in that direction. Shortly after getting married and settling down, Mary suffered a serious, prolonged illness and her priorities began changing. "I was forced to sit still," she says, "I went back to some things from my childhood."
As she healed, she got a proposition from the producers of Fons & Porter's Love of Quilting , the TV show that is shot in Iowa and airs on PBS. Her mother's long-time co-host, Liz Porter, was ready to retire, but Marianne Fons wanted to keep going. Who could be her new partner? They wondered if Mary Fons would like to try out.
"They knew I was a performer and that I get along great with my mother," Mary says. "But I had to sort of go to boot camp and train as a quilter."
She did this with enthusiasm and dove right in, which most viewers appreciated. But not all. "It's like when Kermit didn't sound like Jim Henson anymore. It was hard on some fans," she says. Some viewers were very specific in their criticisms, she recalls, "They said 'She talks too fast,' 'I don't like her clothes,' and in one case, 'She talks too much about her manicures.' Well, I probably did at first: I was nervous."
Those who loved seeing Mary included experienced quilters who were still waiting for their daughters to take up the craft. The producers of the show came to realize there was value to having a newbie on the show asking questions. "I ask the questions a rookie asks, and lots of people don't know these things," says Mary.
It went so well, that after taping one full season alongside her mom, the producers signed her up for a second. But as she got deeper into quilting her own projects, discovering a passion for traditional scrap quilt patterns executed in today's vibrant fabrics, Mary started thinking about how "there just didn't seem to be a show for new quilters in the YouTube generation."
She decided to create one herself, and went to the Fons & Porter producers for a modest budget to shoot an internet-only program closer to her current home. Called "Quilty," she films at a hip Chicago quilt shop called Quiltology. Her aim is for the show to be quirky, funny, fresh and educational. It is all those things and more.
"Quilty" debuted in January as one of the internet-only quilt shows on QNNtv.com, with episodes of 6 to 10 minutes released weekly. Since only people who already consider themselves quilters are likely to visit QNN, Mary Fons insisted that "Quilty" also be posted free on YouTube.
Mary was born to do this, in my opinion. Her confidence as a performer and passionate quilter combine with a feel for her generation's cultural touchstones (she is 31), like famous rappers. She breaks quilting down to very simple steps -- like how to shop for fabric, how to use a rotary cutter -- and often is teaching an actual first-timer how to do these things.
You can watch the initial episodes of "Quilty" on QNNtv.com without being a paid subscriber (click on Watch Now), or go to YouTube and search for Quilty and Mary Fons.
You heard it here first: she's gonna be a big star in Quiltlandia!
More at www.maryfons.com.
This excerpt is from the February issue of the e-newsletter Quilt Journalist Tells All! which is produced monthly by Meg Cox, a journalist and veteran quilter who is president of the nonprofit Alliance for American Quilts. Her most recent book is the bestseller The Quilter's Catalog: A Comprehensive Resource Guide. (Workman, 2008)
Here is a link to the complete issue of the e-newsletter. Scroll down on the left to sign up for a FREE subscription. Quilt Jourrnalist Tells All Newsletter