Quilting no longer just 'Grandma's hobby'
By Lou Fancher
Toss aside caution and embrace creativity: art quilts have escaped the bedroom.
For signs of the textile trend, just look to the 13,000-square-foot National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, which claims it's on-site and traveling exhibits are viewed by more than 110,000 people a year. Or consider the 850-piece collection at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, founded in 1977 and the first U.S. museum to focus exclusively on quilts and textiles as an art form.
National touring exhibits in the 2000s of "The Quilts of Gee's Bend," a stunning collection of 60 quilts created by four generations of African-American women dating back to the 19th century, attracted record-setting crowds during museum stops in New York, Washington D.C., Cleveland, Boston, Atlanta and at San Francisco's de Young Museum. Add to this the impressive advent of art quilts in galleries and museums and the hundreds of international, national and local quilt organizations, and it's not hyperbole to say quilts are hot.
"Strata," opening Thursday in the Harrington Gallery at Pleasanton's Firehouse Arts Center, picks up on the movement with a juried exhibit through Dec. 16. Fifty quilted works by 33 professional artists who are members of the Northern California & Northern Nevada chapter of SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates)
include wall pieces and sculptures.
SAQA is a nonprofit founded in 1989 by Yvonne Porcella (the juror for the Strata show) that has 3,400 members nationwide and seeks to promote art quilts through outreach programs, publications and exhibitions. Denise Oyama Miller, of Fremont, worked in IT for Kaiser and serves as co-regional representative of the SAQA chapter.
"I have always sewn," she says. "When I had my first child, my husband's great aunt, Flossie, sent us a grandmother's flower garden baby quilt for our son. I knew I wanted to learn how to make these treasures."
Miller seldom makes traditional quilts now; her mixed-media collage style has her hand-dying fabric and including paper and fusible appliqué that she says is a reflection of the freedom of contemporary quilting.
"Galleries are getting excited to have us. We have less rigid guidelines than other art forms. People are amazed that it's fabric they are looking at -- and people understand it immediately. An oil painting might not have meaning to them, but everyone knows fabric."
Appreciation for quilts as art, given that some people still consider it to be "grandma's hobby," is slowly but steadily increasing, Miller says.
"It's fine art. Artists are using custom paper, painted fabric and photography. We have better printers and companies where we can send JPEGs, and they'll print the images on fabric."
Pleasanton artist Karen Campbell Swift's 30-by-40-inch "Never Give Up," depicts silhouetted images of her daughters climbing the rock strata at Escalante Staircase in Kanab, Utah. The bold blue sky, precariously stacked earth-toned rocks and one ascendant climber's arms raised in victory are an investment in family memory.
"To me, all quilts are art," she says.
Made for laps, floors or walls and given as gifts, Swift's utilitarian and art quilts hark back to her grandmother, who worked for Singer, and her mother, who made the family's clothing.
A preview of the exhibit displays an intriguing perspective: the SAQA quilters considered as a group are bold colorists but diverge when it comes to representational versus abstract, geometric versus organic and to dichotomies relating to texture and complexity.
Diane Goff, of Oakland, has one foot in each camp.
"I Live in House E" is a vigorous, highly textured rendition of home; a giant "E" emblazoned on the facade, a vivid orange door offset and a celestial roof topped with a red flag. The two-panel "Urban Bamboo" features bright green bamboo shoots that disappear behind borders containing images that suggest city apartment buildings. A lecture about Amish quilts by Juliet Silber at Mills College got Goff "thoroughly hooked."
Thirty years later, Goff says, "I incorporate drafting, precision piecing, fabric dying and painting. I use photo transfer, silk screening, cotton, crinoline, silk and most recently, handmade paper."
All three artists say the quilt community is supportive and often most encouraging of individual expression and different approaches to the art form.
"They make it easy to grow in our art," Goff says of her peers. Miller says during the last 10 years the region's SAQA membership has risen to 300 due to outreach efforts like workshops and increased opportunities to compete or exhibit the works.