by Suzanne Labry
The Michael Jackson Story Quilts
Michael Jackson (August 29, 1958 – June 25, 2009), the American singer, songwriter, musician, dancer, record producer, actor, and celebrity, inspired a profound association with millions of fans worldwide that continues unabated years after his death.
With the possible exception of Elvis Presley, perhaps no other modern-day entertainer has engendered such a deeply personal connection with his global audience. Known as “The King of Pop,” Jackson influenced popular culture for 40 years (most of his life) and made lasting contributions to music, dance, and fashion due to his distinctive look and sound. He remains the most awarded recording artist in the history of popular music, and his Thriller is the best-selling album of all time.
The Love You Save (1970) was a song done by Michael Jackson during his years with the Jackson 5. Sandra included this block in her Jackson 5 quilt. Photo by Sandra O'Brien.
Given all that, it should perhaps come as no surprise that quilters are among his fans. What is surprising however, is the dedication with which one quilter in particular has shown in commemorating Michael Jackson’s life and work.
Sandra O’Brien, a quilter who lives near Chicago, Illinois, has spent three hours a day for the past three years creating a series of 5’ x 6’ art quilts that represent every aspect of Michael Jackson’s life, including his solo album covers, his Top 40 singles, the period of the Jackson 5, his books/movies/short films, his humanitarian events/awards, his tours/special appearances, his Neverland ranch/other important places, his animal friends, celebrity friendships/family, his trial, and his popularity after his death.
Sandra says that she intends to work on her Michael Jackson Story Quilts project until her eyes and hands give out. She has finished five quilts and plans six more. She hopes to have the complete series of 11 quilts done by June 2019, the 10-year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s passing.
Sandra O’Brien was born a year before Michael Jackson and she fell in love with his music the first time she heard him sing. It was not until after his death that she became a serious fan, however. She said that when Michael Jackson died, she felt like she lost a member of her family. Her biological family contained accomplished needlewomen, and Sandra herself began embroidering as a teen.
Her older sister introduced her to quilting about ten years ago, and she has used her needlework skills to great effect in the creation of her Michael Jackson project. When asked what her family thinks of her effort, she jokingly replies, “They admire what I am doing, but I think they question my sanity!”
The first quilt in Sandra O'Brien's Michael Jackson Story Quilts series is titled Solo Albums. The piece recreates each of his album covers in fabric, enhanced by heavy embellishment. Photo by Sandra O'Brien.
Sandra’s work process is labor intensive. When recreating an album cover as a quilt, for example, she finds a high-resolution photo of the album on the Internet, copies it into Photoshop, resizes it, and prints the photo image on fabric. She then uses a variety of needlework techniques and embellishment materials, including embroidery, felt appliqué, quilting, beads, lace, feathers, metal foil, ribbon, yarn, cotton cloth, satin, velvet, and sequins to enhance the image.
“My one rule is to leave Michael’s face untouched by needlework. An exception to that rule is if it is a painting of Michael’s face rather than a photo. The Dangerous album cover has a painting of Michael’s eyes, and I embroidered his eyebrows and eyeliner,” she says. All the work is done by hand; she says that the work is calming and helps her “get through the lousy Chicago winters.”
In wanting to create a tribute to Michael Jackson that would be “dynamic, tell Michael’s story, and connect to Michael’s life,” Sandra chose quilts because of their inherent storytelling abilities and in particular, she says, “the strong African American tradition of quilting and storytelling via textiles.”
Dangerous was Michael Jackson's eighth studio album; it was released in 1991. Sandra reproduced it as one of the blocks in her Solo Albums quilt. The album cover is surrounded by quotes from Michael Jackson. Photo by Sandra O'Brien.
She relates that Michael Jackson himself helped in sewing beads and sequins on the costumes that his mother would make for him—a link to the heavy embellishment that Sandra does to her narrative quilts.
The quilts are not for sale, but Sandra does display them at fan events as she continues to work on them. On Michael Jackson’s birthday in August of 2015, Sandra brought the three quilts she had finished at that time to the Jackson family home in Gary, Indiana, where she hung them on the fence. She got a “wonderful reaction” from fans gathered outside the house. When the entire series is complete, she hopes to donate the quilts to a Michael Jackson museum or a related charity.
A fan is defined as “a person who is enthusiastically devoted to something or somebody.” A fan may engage in creative activities such as creating fanzines, writing fan fiction, or making fan art, which is known as fan labor. Sandra O’Brien fits this definition, and her Michael Jackson Story Quilts are definitely a labor of love.