Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Molly Upton's Quilts 1974-1976


Molly Upton, Watchtower, 1975
Museum of Fine Arts Collection

The important exhibit Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is over. Many friends got to see it and were knocked out by the show, revisiting the textile arts of the 1970s, a very exciting time to be making quilted patchwork to hang on a wall.

Or not.

Watchtower Detail
A large quilt
I don't know what you were doing in 1975 but I was making quilts for beds, like this wool pineapple for my nephew.

Nice enough but I remember when I saw Molly Upton's work. We all said, "Far Out,"
 or whatever we said in 1976. I know it wasn't "Awesome!"
But Molly's quilts were awe inspiring to those of us looking for a new vision. 

Blades, Molly Upton, 1974

What was she doing?

Martha Neill Upton (1953-1977)

Over the years I've tried making a photofile of her quilts---she only worked for a few years in the mid-1970s. Like many creative people she suffered from depressions and in 1977 she jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. What would she have done in the decades since if we'd all been more fortunate and she continued to work?

Detail of Greek, 1974

92" x 80"

Nocturne Regalis, 1974

Summer Pine, 1974

Pine Winter, 1974

Fanfare, 1976
These quilts are often quite large. Fanfare is 118" x 80"

Many of her quilts were shown at QuiltCon 2016 in an exhibit curated by Pam Weeks of the New England Quilt Museum.

Pam Weeks is the Binney Curator at the New England Museum. Molly
was a native New Englander so they have shown her work at the Museum.

Many visitors took photos of the quilts at QuiltCon. I've photoshopped a few of them here,
squaring up the pictures and cutting the work out of the background.
List of links to see more below.

Construction, 1975
74" x 80"

Construction, Date?

Construction published in the Quilt Engagement Calendar may have been my introduction to her work.

Symbol: Self Portrait Without a Mirror, 1976
78" x 65"

Solid color cottons were hard to find in the mid 1970s. It looks
like some of hers are fading and streaking, like this background.

Torrid Dwelling 1975, 98" x 92"

Forest Fire 1976, 40" x 56"

Alchemy, 1976

The Overcoat, 1976

Trip Around the Block 1976

I was talking to Pam Weeks the other day who reminded me that when Molly first began making quilts she had a design partner Susan Hoffman. At first they worked in pairs.

A Pair

Susan also has a piece in the Museum's collection.

20 feet x 6-1/2 feet
Susan made Coastline while Molly made Watchtower.

Coastline detail

Susan and Molly

Detail Pine Winter

I'm still in awe of Molly's sense of color and the right fabric. I've been planning a black and white quilt and I see where I have gone wrong. No tan. No other neutrals. It would have been too cold. Recalculating...


  1. I feel so fortunate to have been able to get down to Boston to see this last week. I am still reeling from the experience. It was amazing to finally see some of my favorite antique quilts up close and personal. But, seeing The Watchtower in person was incredibly moving. I remember reading about her suicide not long after it happened and feeling such a sense of loss. We owe so much to these early artists, like Susan, Molly, Nancy Halpern and my friend Rhoda Cohen. Thanks for bringing so many of Molly's quilts together in one place.

  2. I was blown away by the QuiltCon Exhibition. It was my introduction to her work. Thank you for sharing this Barbara. I love your blog posts!

  3. Thank you for the information on Molly Upton. I didn't know of her before today, that I recall. She made wonderful quilts, so sad her talent didn't continue on. Your comment on seeing her work for the 1st time in the 70s, gave me a giggle. I remember the outrage in the letters to the editor in Quilters Newsletter Magazine issues I have from back then about "how dare you publish such garbage!" and "those are NOT quilts!" when they published anything but non-traditional bed quilts. How wrong they were.

    Off to check out the other links... the chores will have to wait a bit longer today

  4. Absolutely amazing! I think she was a genius and it is so sad to hear of her depression and suicide. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Such an innovator for her time, now coming into acceptance so long later.

  6. Oh Molly, such beauty and such pain. I hope her creations were a comfort to her; she must have worked at quite a speed. I wonder if she had rural experiences in New England. The "Nocturne Regalis" appears to have been inspired by the Citheronia regalis moth, one of the largest of the night flyers with subtle, lovely colors. Thank you for introducing her and her work.