Quilts in 'Continuing Tradition' show at TSU exemplify the change from bedcoverint to artwork.

November 08, 1992|By Beth Smith | Beth Smith,Contributing Writer

Quilts have come off the bed and moved to the wall. Once soft and reassuring functional covers to warm the body, they are now complex pieces of art, demanding visual attention and aesthetic judgments. Unique, innovative, bursting with creativity, they have pushed the perimeters of traditional quilt-making.

Freed from the confines of classic patterns and set colors, art-quilt makers are concentrating less on sewing 20 stitches to the inch and more on creating design elements, using sophisticated color schemes and compositions.

And the sewing machine, once a virtual taboo in the world of quilting, is becoming accepted and used, allowing the quilt maker the time to focus on concept. Two years ago, the Best of Show winner at an American Quilter's Society competition was a machine-quilted piece.

To pursue this new freedom, art-quilt makers are investigating all types of artistic avenues. They are embellishing quilts with found objects, stenciling, air brushing, transferring a photographic image to the cloth, hand-dyeing fabrics, and painting fabrics. Silks, wools, laces and all types of designer fabrics are substituted for traditional calico cottons. More adventurous artists are incorporating plastic and paper into quilt designs, sometimes even forsaking the basic quilting technique of sewing together three layers -- the top, the batting and the back.

"While it's hard to define an art quilt," says Hilary Fletcher, project director of Quilt National, the top quilt show in the United States, "you can say that the women and men who make art quilts are doing with fabric and thread what artists do with canvas and paint." They are using quilts as mediums for creative expression. "Art quilts are not for a bed," continues Ms. Fletcher. "They are designed for vertical display, and they make a strong visual impact."

To celebrate this new art form and America's quilting heritage, Towson State University is staging "Quilts: A Continuing Tradition," whichopens on Friday (see box for details). Coordinated by faculty member and quilter Dr. Joan McMahon, the event features a quilt show, the musical "Quilters" and a symposium.

The 18 quilts to be exhibited reflect the ideas of 16 different quilt makers from all over the country. They range in design from classic to contemporary and beyond.

Patricia Long Gardner's "Color Wash II," with its subtle use of printed fabrics in a traditional geometric framework, is miles away from "Quilt: War Stars," by Baltimore quilt artist Dorcas Krabill, who abandons the actual act of quilting to make a statement on her feelings about war. Predominantly orange and black, the quilt looks very traditional until, on closer inspection, what appears to be fabric turns out to be an array of five different paper hazard labels arranged in a nine-square pattern.

Leaning to the avant-garde

"I think our show is marked by a great diversity in style and imagery." says curator Dorothy Fix, who directs the Fiber Arts program at TSU. "Pieces were judged on visual impact and technique, and I think the selections lean to the avant-garde. Probably only about four pieces could work as functional quilts."

Adrien Rothschild's "Winter Blues" is large and visually striking with its lattice-grillwork design in purples and maroons and its ice-blue center. It represents the artist's tunnel vision approach to winter and her descent into depression as the days shorten. Ms. Rothschild's quilt is more than just something to crawl under on a cold night. It is a personal statement by an artist.

All the quilts in the TSU show reflect the artist's interpretation of what's going on in her world or the world at large. "Earth Conscience," by Baltimorean Jean Hoblitzell, deals with the changing energy of the earth. The effect this energy has on everyday life is captured in circles, triangles and rectangles.

The "Suicide Quilt," designed by Katharine Brainard of Bethesda, explores the frightening despair and the great emotional pain experienced by some men and women. Constructed in vivid reds and blacks, a central square proclaims, "Life sucks," not exactly something Grandma might put on her feather bed or even hang on her wall.

Sandra Donabed from Wellesley Hills, Mass., interprets "Other Women's Problems" in a large quilt embellished with fragments from tea towels, buttons from fur coats, pieces of Ginny doll clothing, and flea market trinkets. The center is a doily that squawks out directions when poked.

Not all the quilts are so discomforting as "Suicide Quilt" and "Other Women's Problems." Donora Dingman uses primary colors and an abstract design to create a sense of movement and kinetic energy in "Rassmatazz." "On Black II" is artist's Linda Levin's exploration of the relationship between forms and lines on a black background.

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