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Dairy Barn Unveils Quilt (R)evolution

by Kathleen Loomis

Quilt (R)evolutions exhibit at the Dairy Barn Art Center

Quilt (R)evolutions exhibit at the Dairy Barn Art Center

I’m just home from Athens, OH where I visited the Dairy Barn for its current show, an exciting collection of work from most of the people who have served as Quilt National jurors over the 35 years of that exhibit.  It was special because the participants were asked to send three pieces: one from their earliest work, one of their work at the time they were jurors, and one of their current work. And most of them actually sent exactly what was requested!

The too-clever title of the show, “quilt (R)evolution” is silly but accurate, because the quilts do clearly mark the evolution of the quilts-as-art genre.  Several of the oldest ones are only a step or two away from traditional — and Ann Johnston’s 1979 piece could have easily been made in 1879.

I’ve been obsessively following Quilt Nationals via catalog since 1983 and in person for at least 20 years (can’t remember exactly which one I first attended) so it’s not a surprise to me that quilts-as-art started so close to its traditional roots and took a few years to escape the conventions.  But it’s fun to be reminded of how the famous names we’re all familiar with started out, and how they got going in their own directions.

California II by Joan Schulze

California II by Joan Schulze

For instance, Joan Schulze started by making a big quilt that was the California winner in the big Good Housekeeping Quilts of America competition in 1976 — I remember that, even though I wasn’t much of a quilter at the time.  After it was photographed for the book (I think I have the book, too) her quilt and others were destroyed in a warehouse fire but after a long period of grieving she decided to remake it.  The design was original, with a batiked landscape in the center, but its wide border is composed of the traditional Road to California blocks (she did shock the viewers by making them in different colors to extend the landscape — blue for the sky, brown for the earth). Subsequently Schulze developed her signature style of using images appropriated from the media in collage-like photo-transferred and screenprinted compositions that remind me of Robert Rauschenberg.

March Study by Nancy Crow, 1979

March Study by Nancy Crow, 1979

Nancy Crow started with huge symmetrical quilts that were meticulously planned and intricately pieced from templates using commercial prints.  Subsequently she found that improvisationally free-cutting shapes from hand-dyed fabrics and building her compositions gradually on the wall was a more satisfying approach.

Heavens Reach by  Katie Pasquini Masopust, 1981

Heavens Reach by Katie Pasquini Masopust, 1981

Katie Pasquini Masopust‘s early quilt was a daring pentagon but executed in impeccably traditional craft from teeny calico prints.  Subsequently she started incorporating easel-painted canvas into her quilt constructions.

Other jurors went in different directions.  Michael James, after years of strip-pieced curves, embraced digital photography cranked out on a huge-format printer.  Yvonne Porcella started by making functional kimonos, then went flat (but kept her signature palette, brights with black-and-white).  Jan Myers-Newbury started by hand-dying solid gradations, then discovered arashi shibori and never looked back.

Practically all of the early pieces were hand-quilted, but as the years progress most of them switched to the machine.  Practically all the early ones were carefully pieced or appliqued with no raw edges, no messy craftsmanship of any kind, but as the years progress we see fusing, raw-edge applique, phototransfer, non-cloth materials and any number of experimental techniques emerge (for instance, Tim Harding’s latest work is “quilted” with staples).

For those of us who have been tuned in to the quilts-as-art movement for a long time, the show is a great walk down memory lane.  Fortunately all the pieces in the show still look fine (although Ann Johnston‘s, used on the bed for decades, has faded dramatically into the muted colors of vintage quilts).  For those of us who aren’t that familiar with the olden days of our little niche of the art world, the show will be an eye-opener: how far we’ve come in such a short time.

Unfortunately the catalog doesn’t reproduce the artist notes that appear on the walls of the Dairy Barn.  So, for instance, readers will probably think that Wendy Huhn‘s extravaganza of female fairies perched on irons is about the drudgery of housework, when it’s really about a lethal disease that causes too much iron to build up in one’s blood vessels and joints.  (I know how easy it is to leap to that conclusion, because I eavesdropped on two young guys explaining to one another quite solemnly how women’s work is never done, etc, before one of them thought to read the sign.)

The show remains up at the Dairy Barn through November 22 — see it if you can!

Kathleen Loomis retired from a career in journalism and corporate communication and now makes quilts and other forms of art from her home in Louisville KY.  Her work has been accepted into four Quilt Nationals and won the Quilts Japan Prize in QN ’09. Follow her blog at artwithaneedle.blogspot.com

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Art Quilts — A primer

By Kathleen Loomis


Little Fish in a Big City by Kathy York, QN2011

Every exhibit of contemporary art quilts has its quintessential moment of confusion as somebody walks in the door, looks around in bewilderment, and announces, “But these aren’t quilts!” No doubt this person was expecting fabric constructions big enough to fit on a bed, perhaps with traditional block designs, maybe even quilted by hand. This newfangled stuff, which you would never put on your bed, just doesn’t fit the definition.

Looking at the wide variety of works that have been accepted in past Quilt National exhibits, you may share some of that confusion. The rules are pretty vague: “the work submitted must possess the basic structural characteristics of a quilt.” That generally means multiple layers of fabric, held together with stitching, with some kind of visual design on the layer facing the viewer.

There are as many ways to accomplish that objective as there are stirrings of the quilter’s imagination. Let’s take a whirlwind tour of some of the possibilities.

First, a visual design.

Traditional quilters generally relied on two methods to make their design. They might sew pieces of different fabric together in patterns (called piecing) or they might sew a piece of fabric, cut into a shape, on top of a base fabric (called applique).

Our Dads at War by Mary Ann Tipple, 2007

Our Dads at War by Mary Ann Tipple, QN2007

Contemporary quiltmakers still use those methods, but they also have a wide range of other ways to get a design onto the top layer of the quilt. They might draw onto a background or use printmaking techniques, with paint or dye. They might print photos or other images or text from a computer. They might allow bits of metal to rust onto their fabric or bury it in the garden for six months to become stained.

Where the traditional quiltmaker would sew her appliques by hand or machine, today’s quiltmakers might use glue, staples, snaps or Velcro. And the bits of stuff applied might be paper, wood, buttons, beads or metal in addition to fabric.

Earth and Soul by Pat Owoc

Earth and Soul “To Go” by Pat Owoc, QN1999

 Second, multiple layers.

The traditional quilt is made of a top, a back and a middle layer of batting (usually cotton or wool for warmth). Today’s quilt might use kinds of fabric never seen in traditional practice: netting, chiffon, felt, canvas, knits, nonwoven interfacings, landscape fabric, plastic. One or more of the layers might be paper, plastic, hardware cloth, screening, wood, even metal.

Third, stitching to hold the layers together.

Traditionally, quilts were held together with a dense network of hand-stitching, although many makers were thrilled to use the sewing machine as soon as that invention became available. Today’s quiltmakers might stitch by hand or machine, or they might use fasteners such as staples or rivets. Reprising the traditional whole cloth quilts, in many cases the stitching itself provides part or all of the visual design.

No longer intended for the bed, today’s contemporary quilt art has no prescribed size or shape (although Quilt National sets a maximum of 100 inches to a side). Most quilts are still two-dimensional and hang flat against the wall, but many have 3-D elements sewed into the fabric or applied to the surface, or are hung on armatures that extend from the wall.

With this vast range of possibilities, it may be either surprising or comforting that so many of the Quilt National works are still so traditional in form, if not in their visual imagery. Most contemporary quiltmakers choose to make their art in the quilt form because of their love of and respect for its long and rich heritage, and the very choice of this process is an integral part of the art.

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