The quilting life

Art has taken many forms for Donna Leigh Jackins

The quilting life

Photo by: Nancy Evelyn

Donna Leigh Jackins’ life hangs on a wall in her Birmingham, Ala., living room.

There’s a press pass from a trip to the CNN Center in Atlanta; a little sock representing a Christmas stocking; a mermaid, like the one she painted in a mural at her family’s lake house; a tiny December birthstone ring; an Arch pin; a Georgia Bulldog and a poem:

“Part of me is structured

Part of me is free

Part of me lives by the rules

And part of me is on a spree.

Society builds fences

Souls require space

Conformity and confounding I run my human race.”

The poem and the mementos are on a canvas quilt that covers about 30 square feet of space on one side of the room. Hundreds of tiny items, memories from Jackins’ seven decades of life are sewn or glued onto the quilt. Even her cat left his mark—tiny paw prints from the day he walked through paint and then across the canvas.

“You can always add things,” says Jackins (BFA ’57), propped against a walker following knee surgery. “That’s what’s so fun.”

The life quilts, as she calls them, tell a story, a sort of three-dimensional montage of things, photos and words that represent important dates, places and people.

The quilts have evolved over time as Jackins moved from one art form to the next.

As a child in Virginia Beach, Va., she recalls painting all the furniture in her bedroom. Instead of being angry, her parents encouraged her artistic flair.

“They would take their friends back there and say ‘Look what she did,’” Jackins says.

She spent two years at the College of William & Mary before transferring to UGA to study art. She began painting and then moved into sculpture. For about a decade she focused on making paper.

“My friends said, ‘What are you going to do next?’ It was sort of a progression.”

An antique crazy quilt she spotted at a cocktail party provided her next inspiration—she created quilts out of the paper she had made. Soon she was making quilts from fabric. Not typical quilts, these feature wizards, pizzas, angels and fairies among other things, created from fabric and sewn onto the quilts. She’ll often include a poem written in fabric paint.

“I’m very gaudy,” she says. “I use a lot of embellishments.”

Recently she made two dresses, one black, the other red, and sewed them to a quilt. Accompanying “My red dress” is this poem:

“I’m feeling confident today

I’ve got my strut, my hair looks great,

My smile and eyes are flashing.

Isn’t this the grandest day?

Don’t I look just smashing!!!

Something good’s about to happen

Don’t know what, but yes

Fortune’s shining down because I’m wearing my red dress.”

Since she made her life quilt about three years ago she has been commissioned to make them for others. She meets with clients and asks them questions about their lives and has them bring pictures and other mementos to include on their quilts.

One woman asked that she include some black areas on her quilt. “They’re my secrets,” she told Jackins.

So far she has made about a dozen life quilts for other people.

“I like to think when anybody gets a piece of my artwork, every day they walk past it they think, ‘I’m glad I have that.’”