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October 24, 1992 - Image 68

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1992-10-24

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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177

Indeed, the number of people involved has
grown as wildly and unpredictably as a Vic-
torian crazy quilt. Quilt National, which be-
gan in 1979 with 390 works submitted by
about 200 artists, has mushroomed into a
show that this year attracted 1,178 works by
almost 600 artists. The American Quilter's So-
ciety in Paducah, Kentucky, itself only seven
years old, boasts close to 70,000 members,
including many from foreign countries.
Although contemporary artists are piecing
together their own tradition, they also share
in the quiltmaker's heritage. Most are still
working within the standard framework of a
quilt; that is, two layers sewn together, usu-
ally filled with batting. They also draw inspi-
ration from similar events, such as births,
deaths, and political movements. In the 19th
century, for example, a woman might have
stitched a quilt as a memorial to a lost child.
An analogous 20th century effort, on a much
larger scale, is the well-known AIDS Memo-
rial Quilt, a tribute to the many lives lost to
the disease. And while early quilts may have
carried messages championing women's suf-
frage or the abolition of slavery, today's might
promote concern for the environment or an
end to nuclear-weapons proliferation.
Vivid imagery is one of the most distinc-
tive elements of the new art quilt. Today, a
man or woman who wants to commemorate
the birth of a baby might use a photographic
transfer image of the child's face rather than
a conventionally stitched portrait. Or the
artist's quilt may have a design that obeys only
its own logic, expanding upon or even ignor-
ing the standard grid and motifs of the past.
In addition to unusual imagery, technolo-
gy distinguishes the work of the contempo-
rary quilter. Many of today's artists embrace
not only new dyeing and photographic tech-
niques but the use of the sewing machine,
too. Although a factor in quiltrnaking for over
100 years, the machine was formerly consid-
ered acceptable only for piecework, not for
quilting itself (the stitches covering the sur-
face). Hence the controversy when a machine-
quilted piece by Caryl Bryer Fallert won Best
of Show at the American Quilter's Society
competition two years ago.
"I can understand why people were upset,"
says Meredith Schroeder, the society's pres-
ident. "But the skill of the quilt and her de-
sign played a big role in the prize." According
to Carter Houck, author of The Quilt Ency-
clopedia Illustrated (Harry N. Abrams in as-
sociation with the Museum of American Folk

Art, $39.95), such hard-line hostility toward
art quilters may be disappearing. "The two
camps are beginning to realize that they can
learn something from each other," says
Houck. "People who are doing traditional
work are not doing it to the letter. They're get-
ting interested in color, and that comes from
the art quilters. It used to be that art quilters
had poor workmanship, but that's no longer
true at the big competitions and shows."
Its no surprise that the combination of fine
skill and innovative patterns should have cre-
ated a market for contemporary quilts. But at
the very top tier, modern-day examples have
still not achieved the prices brought by their
rarest predecessors. The 1972 Hudson River
Quilt, a much-exhibited group project about
saving the river, was auctioned at Sotheby's
in 1990 for $23,000, a fraction of the $176,000
brought by an 1840 Baltimore album quilt auc-
tioned by the same house in 1987. "Contem-
porary quilts are not a particularly good
investment at this point because there's not

Vivid imagery is
one of the most
distinctive
elements of the
new art quilt.

a significant after-market," says Fletcher.
But prices are rising, especially at the avant-
garde end of the market Works by artists like
Faith Ringgold, whose story quilts of fiber and
canvas have celebrated African-American
themes, and Tertie Hancock Mangat, who
has worked in fiber and mixed media, can
bring $14,000 and up, says Bernice Stein-
baum, owner of the Bernice Steinbaum
Gallery in New York.
Steinbaum is committed to giving a wider
audience to such works, which aren't always,
technically speaking, quilts. Last winter, her
gallery mounted " The Definitive Contempo-
rary American Quilt," a show that included
projects executed in metal, wire, paper— even
quills and feathers. "A quilt has to be rede-
fined," says Steinbaum. "To me, a quilt warms
the soul— it may or may not warm the body."
However much this definition disconcerts tra-
ditionalists, it indicates a change in which
all quilters can take pride: Quilts are finally
being accepted as art, not craft. As individual
creations, they are certain to stretch bound-
aries as other fine arts have. ❑

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