Revisiting the Art Quilt

Revisiting the Art Quilt

Revisiting the Art Quilt

As some have said about returning to a familiar place after a long absence, “You can never go back”—meaning that the one returning has changed and will find that the familiar now looks different. Revisiting ‘The Art Quilt’ returns to a 1986 exhibition titled “The Art Quilt,” curated by Penny McMorris and Michael Kile. Twenty-five years later the quilts are the same, but viewers’ impressions are influenced by artists’ ongoing exploration of the creative potentials of quilts, the increasingly technologically driven developments in traditional quiltmaking, as well as a quarter century of social change. In our revisitation we look upon the enduring vibrancy and influence of the quilts and quiltmakers and ask what new things “The Art Quilt” shows us that couldn’t be seen a quarter century ago.

The original exhibition was the brainchild of Michael Kile, a young San Franciscan publisher who was known widely for his exquisite taste, acid wit, West Coast art contacts and quilt expertise. Among 1980s quilt-world movers and shakers, Michael was an earthquake.

McMorris, then an art historian, commentator, and curator for the Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corporation, recalls: "Michael contacted me in 1984, sharing his vision and asking for help. He foresaw creating the first landmark contemporary quilt exhibition to gain the attention of curators, collectors, art reviewers and gallery owners, to validate and showcase the best emerging and leading quilt artists. The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery had invited him to curate, and he sought quilts bold in size and intention which could hold their own in the gallery’s looming 18-foot ceilinged space.

“Michael and I invited potential artists to create the piece they’d always dreamt of making, from which we would choose. Upon seeing actual quilts, we selected a final group of sixteen artists, giving each another year to create one or more additional large-scale pieces . . . The black-tie opening took place on a balmy September night in 1986. The rest is, as they say, art history.”

The artists exhibited twenty-five years ago have continued to develop diverse and brilliant careers as leading studio quilt artists known world-wide. Today their work resides in significant corporate, private, and museum collections. Three quilts from the 1986 exhibition are included in The Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts and artists in the show created ten percent of the list’s quilts. McMorris and Kile’s exhibition catalogue continues to inform scholars of the art quilt movement.

Of the enduring value of the quilts, McMorris says: “These quilts have stood the test of time. Even after twenty-five years they represent the artists well.

Works in Exhibition

Works in Exhibition

The Precipice
Gayle Fraas and Duncan Slade
1997.007.1076, Ardis and Robert James Collection
Four panels, each 72”× 24”× 3” excluding projections. Composed of an acrylic-painted plywood frame surrounding a cloth inset that is cotton, hand-painted with Procion® fiber-reactive dyes and quilted by machine and hand.

In 1986 Fraas and Slade, whose house and studio are situated near the Maine coast, began to explore rocky shorelines in their three-dimensional pieces. The Precipice was inspired by Point Sur on the California Coast.

During the past twenty-five years the artists carried on an active artistic practice inspired by waterscapes and maritime culture. Their work explores three-dimensional spaces in both two- and three-dimensional works including quilts and works on paper, tile, and stone. They participated in architectural projects in which large painted fabric and wood pieces create imagined spaces. They completed public art commissions and pieces for corporate collections. In addition to hand painting with dyes, Fraas and Slade today also use digital printing technology to apply designs to their fabrics, a leveraging of technology to expand the range of artistic possibilities. Even though the duo works in many media, Gayle Fraas stated in a 1991 letter to collectors Robert and Ardis James that artistic expression through quilts is their “mother tongue.”

Dashboard Saints: in memory of Saint Christopher (Who lost his magnetism…)
Terrie Hancock Mangat
1997.007.1093, Ardis and Robert James Collection
Hand-appliquéd and machine-pieced cottons and cotton blends. Techniques include reverse appliqué, embroidery, beadwork, and color photocopying. Embellished with a variety of ornaments. Hand-quilted by Sue Rule, Carlisle, Kentucky. Titled, signed and dated in embroidery.

Mangat puts the viewer in the driver’s seat, looking out into the road—and beyond—across a dashboard strewn with plastic saint figurines. From the left, the figures are: St. Michael casting out the Devil, St. Francis of Assisi, Mary Magdalene, St. Theresa, St. Christopher, St. Valentine, the Virgin Mary, and St. Peter. The saints are mourning the passing of two from their ranks who were de-sanctified by the Church: St. Christopher, seen here as a ghost, and St. Valentine, who floats away in triangular shards. Dashboard Saints was named one of the Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts in 1999.
Mangat received her BFA in printmaking and ceramics in 1970 and began quiltmaking shortly thereafter, working in all of these media until 1980. She continues to create vibrant, large works expressive of her unique vision. Mangat’s quilts are represented in corporate and museum collections in the United States.

Lady of Guadalupe
Nancy Crow

Machine-pieced cottons and cotton blends. Hand-quilted by Sarah Hershberger, Holmesville, Ohio.

In the 1986 The Art Quilt catalog, McMorris and Kile wrote that, “Crow’s work, more than that of her fellow quilt artists, continues to incorporate variations of many traditional quilt patterns.” Nancy Crow, however, has not been constricted by the design vocabulary of traditional quiltmaking. Rather, she has proven that any influence she finds evocative—whether an ethnic art object, an idea, or a personal experience—provides creative grist to her quiltmaking practice. Crow’s work is highly personal, populated with expressions of what she thinks, sees, and feels. She begins with a shape or shapes she has sketched and translates them to fabric through a process of discovery carried out in the solitude of her studio.

Crow’s work appears in important collections such as The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, The American Folk Art Museum, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. She has received numerous art awards and her quilts have been published in multiple monographs and exhibition catalogs since the mid-1970s. Crow regularly shares her knowledge in workshops, as have Michael James and Jan Myers-Newbury, two other artists represented in the original ‘The Art Quilt.’ This suggests that one’s creative practice is enhanced by sharing it with others.

Jean Hewes

Pieced, appliquéd, and quilted by machine in silks, rayons, cotton batiks, and cottons, some painted with dye. Indian and Afghan embroideries are employed. Signed and dated with machine embroidery.

Hewes, who earned a BFA in ceramics in 1974, first made quilts while confined at home with her children. She needed something less messy than clay with which to work, wanted to use the scraps from garment-making, and had always found sewing easy to integrate with the interruptions of a young family. Hewes made a few geometric quilts and gradually added other figural elements, such as birds, that ended up taking over her compositions. She was unaware that artists were making non-traditional quilts until she read about an exhibition featuring Therese May’s quilts.

Twenty-five years later, Hewes’s bold, free, fanciful figural works continue to resonate with viewers.

Jean Hewes

Pieced, appliquéd and quilted by machine in silks, cotton batiks, and cottons, some painted with dye. Embellished with sequins which are machine-strung but sewn by hand to the quilt. Signed and dated in machine embroidery.

Hewes finds a similarity in the way she uses watercolors and fabrics; with both she utilizes transparent layers to control the intensity of colors, represented in quilts by overlain silk gauzes that veil the fabrics below. Hewes works freely without drawing, exploring shapes she finds intriguing. She begins by cutting cloth shapes and ends by adding design elements in her quilting stitches. Hewes’s quiltmaking began in her home and as decoration for her home; she stated that quilts also are comments on her personal environment and creative work that provides an escape.

Number 47
Pamela Studstill
1997.007.1061, Ardis and Robert James Collection
Machine-pieced cottons, painted by hand. Hand-quilted by Bettie Studstill, Pipe Creek, Texas. Titled and signed in embroidery.

Studstill, who received a BFA in painting in the late 1970s, was pursuing a career in painting while still “messing around with quilts.” She explored influences of designers Ruby Short McKim and Jean Ray Laury even before attending college. Later, Studstill studied quilt artist Michael James’s books. Her quiltmaking practice began through experiments in using fabric paints and adhesive tape masks to create striped fabrics. After one of her quilts sold for twice what her paintings earned, she devoted herself to quiltmaking.

Studstill’s inclusion in ‘The Art Quilt’ in 1986 was soon validated, according to a 1990 letter in which Penny McMorris notes that the competition for Studstill’s quilts was increasing: the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution was considering a purchase.

Studstill is one example of many artists trained in painting, ceramics, or other media who brought innovation to quiltmaking by integrating other media and artistic approaches to quilts. Inventive use of materials and media proved to be a hallmark of the most successful contemporary quilts.

Depth of Field III: Plane View
Jan Myers-Newbury
1997.007.1062, Ardis and Robert James Collection
Pieced and quilted by machine in cotton muslin that has been hand-dyed with Procion® fiber-reactive dyes. Made with the assistance of Joanne Olson, Richfield, Minnesota. Signed and dated in embroidery.

Since her quiltmaking beginnings in 1976, Myers-Newbury’s quilts have often reflected the grid geometry of traditional quilts while also moving beyond it, as seen in the layering of planes in this quilt and the illusions of constructed blocks created by her unique process of dyeing gradations. From early in her artistic practice while completing a Masters Degreee in Design at the University of Minnesota, Myers-Newbury has dyed her own quilt fabrics. She began by creating gradations of solid-hued fabrics, as seen in Depth of Field III, but in her recent work she features hand-dyed arashi shibori, a resist dyeing technique that involves submerging into dye a pole, wrapped with cotton fabric. By creating her own materials Myers-Newbury extended the creative process, controlled the quality of raw materials, and enabled innovative use of color, a process that contributed to this quilt’s honor as one of The Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts.

Myers-Newbury’s quilts reside in private and museum collections and have been included in numerous exhibitions and catalogs. Besides continuing her studio dyeing and quiltmaking, she also conducts dyeing workshops several times each year.

Spirals I
Pauline Burbidge
1997.007.1071, Ardis and Robert James Collection
Pieced and quilted by machine in cottons, some of which are hand-dyed.

This quilt and Spirals II, another in the same series exhibited in ‘The Art Quilt’ exhibition, are based on spiral staircase images and compress a three-dimensional element into a two-dimensional plane.

Burbidge, currently one of the most renowned British quilt artists, continues to create quilts that explore sequential views of an object or place, though her current work incorporates a more abstract approach. Her quilts reside in top-notch UK collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), The Whitworth Gallery (Manchester), Glasgow Museums, National Museums of Scotland, and in many private collections around the world. Her quilts are frequently exhibited at venues throughout Europe and North America and have been published in numerous books, articles, and monographs.

Works in Exhibition

Influence on the Jameses

Influence on the Jameses
Influence on the Jameses

The Art Quilt gained the attention of Ardis and Robert James, New York quilt collectors. Robert James said in a 2010 interview that before seeing The Art Quilt, “Ardis and I didn’t really understand what made a contemporary quilt great art.” They began an ongoing relationship with curators Penny McMorris and Michael Kile, who acted as advisors as they built their collection. James continues: “They were convinced that the quilts in ‘The Art Quilt’ were really good work. We visited the exhibition twice, and when we learned that most of the quilts were available, purchased a large number.”

The Jameses continued to collaborate with McMorris as they built one of the most significant art quilt collections in existence. In 1997 the Jameses donated approximately 100 artist-made quilts as part of the founding collection of the International Quilt Museum.

Gallery Photos

Gallery Photos
Gallery Photos
This exhibition was made possible through funding from Friends of the International Quilt Museum and the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. The Nebraska Arts Council, a state agency, has supported this exhibition through its matching grants program funded by the Nebraska Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. Visit for more information.
Event Date
Friday, December 17, 2010 to Sunday, April 3, 2011