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If you were fortunate enough to know Murray Johnston, you knew that she was incredibly passionate about two things: contemporary quilt making and Bernese Mountain dogs. Chances are, you’ve seen her work and didn’t even know it.
Murray Berry Johnston, better known as “Muff,” died on April 15, 2020. We wanted to introduce you to the life and work of this remarkable Birmingham woman who was behind the Living Wall at the Birmingham Airport and so much more.
To learn more about Johnston, I reached out to her longtime friend and colleague Andrew Glasgow of Asheville, North Carolina. The two first met in the late 1980s when they both worked at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
He was assistant curator of decorative arts and field researcher for a show called “Made in Alabama,” and she was in the education department. This is where they discovered their mutual love of quilts, and began a deep and lasting friendship.
“Muff had a multitude of talents and interests. She was well-respected nationally for dogs and quilts. Anyone who had a Bernese Mountain Dog knew who she was. Anyone who wanted a contemporary quilt in the Southeast knew her as well. Her personality was such that any group of people she was with, she was well-known and really well liked.”Andrew Glasgow
If you’ve ever been past the Living Wall at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, you’ve seen Johnston’s work. You may not have realized, though, that her primary medium was quilts, and that the Living Wall was designed to be a living quilt that would showcase the natural beauty of Alabama.
In addition to the airport, her work can be found across the country in a number of venues including museums, businesses, government buildings, hospitals and private collections.
When Johnston and Glasgow were both at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Glasgow “got to see the initial early quilts she was making—art quilts. I liked them and thought they were impressive. When I got to Asheville in 1988, I called her and said ‘you need to join the Southern Craft Guild and do a show at the Blue Spiral Gallery downtown.’ I encouraged her to join the Piedmont Craftsmen in Winston-Salem.”
At that time, people were focused on Appalachian quilts in Asheville rather than contemporary quilts, so she was ahead of her time.
This was in the early days of her career as a quilter, and it sounds like her talent, personality and friends helped her navigate the next steps.
She did lots of commissions for private individuals as well as for institutions. According to Glasgow she’d “go to a craft show and someone would ask her for something. She’d work on it over the coming year and give it to them the next year.”
When I asked Glasgow what his favorites were, he said Johnston “did a series that covered several years. There were mountains with waterfalls—the dark ground of mountains and rocks and the brilliant white fabric coming down. She sold them at Blue Spiral and at fairs and I always thought they were really compelling.”
Glasgow went on to say that she was a big fan of the mountains in North Carolina and her family has an old house in Linville with original chestnut bark on it that she loved.
“Her work was compelling and people loved it.”Andrew Glasgow
Apparently, Johnston also had a collection of quilts in her own library. The University of Mississippi Press is coming out with the book Alabama Quilts: Wilderness through World War II, 1682-1950, and she and Glasgow talked about this book on occasion. Both were very interested in both historical and contemporary quilts.
“She was smart, so smart. She wanted to share and was among the most giving people I’ve ever known.”Andrew Glasgow
Bernese Mountain Dog breeder
In addition to quilts, Johnston bred, owned and loved Bernese Mountain Dogs.
She and Glasgow had a lot of good laughs about the movie “Best in Show.” She could relate to “the crazy pet breeders,” he said, “since she was a major breeder and shower of championship dogs. She also made a huge name for herself as someone who could do really great portraits of your pet.”
Thousands of people will miss Birmingham’s “Muff.” We are fortunate that she has left behind a legacy of gorgeous compelling art and those adorable pups for the rest of us to enjoy.