Visual Systems: The Quilter's Eye Gallery

“The human mind is creative everywhere.” - Franz Boas

Craft, design, art: all of these terms are used to describe the centuries-old process of quiltmaking. Once the near-exclusive domain of women, quilts were prized for the self-expression they afforded to their makers, the sense of community and family they represented, and the physical comfort they brought to their users. This exhibition features a selection of historical and contemporary quilts from the collections of the International Quilt Study Center, chosen for their expressive qualities and sophisticated use of design elements. These quilts represent the product of skilled makers from many branches of the quiltmaking “tree.” They include traditional quilts made to be used on beds, many of whose makers are no longer known; quilts from the Amish and from one branch of African-American traditions; and studio quilts from the beginning of the so-called “art quilt” movement to the present day. There is even a ralli from Pakistan, an example from a rich, nonwestern quilting tradition.

Some of the quilters represented here are self-identified artists, who create and exhibit their quilts within the context of contemporary Western art. Many others were participating as amateurs in a craft that was a part of their culture and through which they express their cultural identity, while at the same time satisfying their need as humans to make something beautiful with their hands. Although these makers did not engage their materials with training in art and design, they still brought to the enterprise their innate human propensity to organize visual information in ways both pleasing and challenging. All of these quiltmakers worked with their materials and processes so that things like visual rhythm, dynamic linear movements, seductive textures, and emotive colors developed as the outcome of diverse strategies. The intrinsic elements of color, shape, line, texture and rhythm were orchestrated simultaneously as natural parts of the object’s gestalt, or unique wholeness. These quilts are compelling and satisfying today because their makers were so successful at the challenge they set themselves.

Historic quilts are a source of inspiration for many artists, including contemporary quiltmakers. These artifacts form a repository of motifs and design solutions, at the same time that they reference the past and cultural identity. The historic quilts on display include such recognizable patterns as Log Cabin, Chinese Coins, Crazy and Center Diamond. Makers who worked with a traditional design pattern such as these may appear uninterested in expressing originality: the immediately recognizable pattern provides a supporting structure, much like what society provides the individual. Yet, within the confines of the known pattern lies a multitude of personal design choices in fabric texture, color and value, as well as scale of pattern pieces, and pattern orientation. The known, repeating pattern provides a framework while it offers opportunities for experimentation and testing. A master quilter finds something new to say in a traditional pattern, and each of the four Log Cabin quilts in the exhibition, all by unknown makers, is a unique exploration of the pattern’s sophisticated play with light and dark.

The Amish quilts are forceful evocations of a world-view that precludes the arbitrary. Their powerful presence seems to emanate from their large balanced forms and unflinching color choices. Amish quilts have inspired many studio quilters of the twentieth century. David Hornung, speaking of their influence on him, said: “To me, Amish quilts comprise one of the singular collections of artifacts, in terms of cultural art, in the history of mankind. I think they are astounding . . . they’re rigorous, and austere; dignified, and metaphysical - everything that great abstract painting is.”

Among the many studio quilts in the exhibition, one can see a progression away from the traditional quilt context towards work that is increasingly conceptual at the same time that it intentionally references the maker’s mark. Many are hand painted, or hand dyed. Mary Ann Jordan’s hand-painted Crossing Flag and Target Flag are intentionally painterly, while others, such as Jan Myers-Newbury’s Depth of Field II, are carefully dyed with a precision that allows the viewer to experience shifts in visual depths through nuanced colored gradations. A Lake/A Bowl, by Canadian Dorothy Caldwell, builds up a rich texture across a large surface through many small marks. This accretive approach finally gives her work a monumental quality as all the subtle color variations and marks from her working and re-working of the surface eventually read as the residue of the long passage of time.

Hung side-by-side, these quilts offer viewers the opportunity to compare how makers in different times and places engaged their audiences with graphic strategies and technical manipulations of impressive breadth and invention. The visual problem solving represented in this collection speaks eloquently of the innovative spirit that characterizes quilts across cultures, geographic areas, and chronologic time.

- Peggy Derrick, exhibition curator