August 2007 Issue
Stitches in Time
Athens' biennial quilt shows spotlights painstaking artistry.
Among the anti-war protests and environmental initiatives of the 1970s bloomed another, lesser-known issue: the feminist art movement. As it gained momentum, women were encouraged to merge handiwork from their studios with creations designed for their homes. Made not for beds but for the wall, the quilt gained form as well as function.
As the decade drew to a close, a group of quilters from Athens decided the craft was worthy of its own showcase, and the first Quilt National exhibition was launched. Although at the time their innovative designs hung amid piles of unswept hay in the inaugural show at the Dairy Barn Cultural Arts Center –– a historic structure they helped save from demolition –– the exhibit paved the way for a community of textile artists who banded together to promote their talents.
Now, 28 years later, the biennial show has gained notoriety as the premier art-quilt exhibit in the world. This year, 83 quilts from 27 states and nine foreign countries are spotlighted.
Wooster native Susan Shie uses paint to complement her quilting technique. Renowned for creating narrative images on cloth, Shie initially uses an airbrush to draw her designs, then quilts the finished canvas onto backing, careful not to bind the raw, frayed edge of the painting. She uses this method not only to make a statement about working outside the limitations of refined art but also to express her views about politics. Shie's entry for this year –– her 10th in show history –– is titled "The Pressure Cooker/Tower." It's designed to illustrate the traditional role of women.
"The kitchen is not just a cliché as a women's room," she says. "It's a room that represents family and nurturing and doing good for others out of love and kindness. And it's where we gather to eat and hopefully discuss our day."
Using fabric as her platform, Shie blends her adoration for her family with political symbolism. A picture of the Statue of Liberty is placed amid images of her husband, daughter and grandchildren. Overhead looms the tower of pressure cookers, representing a potentially explosive situation. In one corner, five and 20 blackbirds fly out of a pie to represent a society at war with itself, as St. Quilta the Comforter, a character Shie modeled after her mother –– a person she looks to for physical and emotional strength –– takes care of the family.
A hallmark of Shie's work is the diary she writes over the images –– one entry for every day she works on the quilt which, in this case, encapsulates a month of her life. The entries include notations about personal experiences, as well as thoughts on national and international politics.
"I think it's a very soft form of protest," she says, contrasting her quilt to those art forms containing more in-your-face elements. "All it is doing is hanging on the wall and it's very tiny writing and you don't have to read it."
Judy Rush of Bexley, also featured in the show, has developed a more abstract style of quilting. Her quilt, entitled "Progress," is Rush's second to appear in a Quilt National exhibit. Rush started making quilts in 2001, following a trip to Egypt, where she received her first burst of inspiration from the blues, golds and reds that comprise the landscape.
Unlike her typical designs of multicolored, irregularly cut shapes, the machine-pieced blue squares and circles that comprise "Progress" are uniform. "It's kind of like the turning point to doing something different," she says with a laugh. "Moving on from what I'm doing now. That's progress."
Her quilts do not typically contain a message, but after creating the final product, Rush will meditate on it until a name comes to her, and then decipher what the moniker means. She says that since this quilt marks a point of change in her work, the name fits.
Rush adds that she's thankful to be part of a community that will support her work and where she can support the work of others.
"The women all seem to work toward a common goal of making this art a valued art," she says.
Quilt National runs through September 3 at The Dairy Barn Cultural Arts Center, 8000 Dairy Lane, Athens. For more information, call 740/592-4981 or visit www.dairybarn.org