HARRISBURG—Here in Central Pennsylvania, we are accustomed to the traditional folk art of quilting in a rural context—country fairs, craft shows or simply passed down from generation to generation.
However, in the expansive main gallery of the Susquehanna Art Museum, the textile art of quilting is examined in a much broader perspective, treating it as both fine craft and fine art in this one-of-a-kind exhibition.
“Quilts 20/20: Traditional Works, Contemporary Art” features 20 historic quilts and 20 modern day quilts organized by the museum with guest curator Pat Pauly. The exhibition examines the historic origins that laid the groundwork for today’s works in fiber art while introducing to the audience a rich selection of new art quilts.
“With this exhibition we challenge the viewers to examine the intersection of tradition and innovation with fine arts and present-day craft,” said Lauren Nye, museum exhibitions manager. “The works on view represent the historical roots of handmade quilting, dating back to 1800 as well as the stunning innovations that international artists bring to a contemporary forefront.”
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The 20 historic quilts come from Lancaster Historical Society and the Pilgrim/Roy collection based out of New Hampshire. The Pilgrim/Roy collection is widely considered the foremost antique quilt collection the country. The designs date back to the late 1800s through the early 1900s.
Familiar patterns are on display in many of the historic quilts, such as the “Framed Center Quilt” from 1810, which features colorful birds and foliage in the center square as well as in the exterior border. The nine-patch variation is seen in the “Diamond in the Square” quilt from 1910, which has a bold red border surrounding an olive green diamond enclosing multiple nine-patch pattern formations.
Repeating shapes in leaf and feathery shapes in “Papercut Quilt” from 1860 by Eliza Weideler Rudy also uses the nine-patch pattern in red, blue and green. “Prince’s Feather,” a Mennonite quilt from 1880 in a bold red and gold, similarly repeats shapes and patterns in traditional, yet nonetheless exquisite creation.
Many contemporary quilts draw from these traditional themes and techniques. Jane Sassaman’s 2012 “Illinois Album” features colorful butterflies, lizards and bees amidst foliage in a symmetrical design. Sassaman says her fiber creations or “soft paintings” satisfy the draftsman, the craftsman and artist in her.
The framed center design is employed in Ginny Smith’s “Night Woods” from 2007. The border is composed of descriptive words and shapes, surrounding a folk art scene of menacing crows.
The contemporary pieces also give the viewer a look at newer, more modern ways of quilting. Methods including fabric painting, fabric fusion and experimental dyes bring a new dimension to quilts, which were once seen as functional objects for the home, but are now viewed as works of art on their own. Some quilts appear to draw on wider fine art influences such as mixed media, abstraction and collage.
Terrie Mangat’s vibrant mixed media presentation, “Taos Mountain Fireworks” (2009-10), is embellished with sparkles, beading and strips of fabric to capture a dynamic pyrotechnic display.
The “Fugitive Pieces” by Elin Noble from 2014 are constructed of whole cotton cloths that are folded in multiple directions and dyed to create complex patterns. The resulting dark colors are reminiscent of a batik print process.
The quilt is a canvas for Dinah Sargeant as she paints directly on the fabric to create narratives within the colors and shapes. Her “Many Moons” (2008) construction has mysterious figures encircled in a swirling vortex.
Intricate stitching that resembles Surrealistic designs on a black quilt would make “Do the Doodle” (2011) by Paula Kovarik look right at home next to a Paul Klee drawing. Scattered blocks of lighter colors in a very asymmetrical design are a stark contrast to the historical quilts.
“Quilts 20/20: Traditional Works, Contemporary Art” is a fascinating look at the similarities as well as differences between the traditional quilters and modern day art quilters. Both employ the design language of line, form, color, movement and composition while drawing upon influences of their distinct cultures and traditions. This is not simply a quilt show but a journey through time and techniques that will appeal to not only quilting enthusiasts but the fine art crowd as well.
“Quilts 20/20: Traditional Works, Contemporary Art” is on display until Aug. 30 at the Susquehanna Art Museum. The museum is located at 1401 N. Third St., Harrisburg. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m., and Monday by appointment. General admission is $8; $5 for teachers, seniors and veterans; free for children younger than 12. Free parking is available at the rear of the building.
For additional information on the museum and exhibitions, visit the museum’s website at www.sqart.org.
Joseph George holds a degree in history and art history from Dickinson College. He and his wife, Barrie Ann, have spent much of their 25 years together traveling and visiting art galleries locally and throughout the world. Their tastes range from fine art to street art.