Stitches in Time

A small-town craft is getting the big-city treatment at two downtown museums.

With a few cool evenings in the last couple of weeks, there's no denying that fall's on the way. And what better season to check out a couple of shows devoted to that coziest of all art forms -- the quilt.

The Colorado History Museum is presenting Quiltspeak: Stories in Stitches, while the Denver Art Museum is featuring an elegant solo called Preserving Patterns: The Quilts of Charlotte Jane Whitehill.

Quiltspeak is a beautiful and interesting show that meanders through a series of large rooms. The quilts have been arranged stylistically and displayed as though they were abstract paintings, which is what they look like.

"Tobacco Flag Quilt," by Carrie Shirley, flannel on sateen.
"Tobacco Flag Quilt," by Carrie Shirley, flannel on sateen.

Details

Through February 24, 303-866-3682

Preserving Patterns: The Quilts of Charlotte Jane Whitehill
Through December 9
Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway
720-865-5003

Colorado History Museum, 1300 Broadway

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The show was put together by Alisa Zahller, the CHM's assistant curator of fine and decorative art, who came on board just last year. Although this is Zahller's first attempt at organizing an exhibit, her neophyte status didn't get in her way; the show is so perfectly accomplished that it could be the work of a seasoned veteran. And Zahller had some considerable hurdles to overcome in organizing a quilt show, such as the fact that she has no particular expertise in textiles. "I had to learn everything. I didn't even know the vocabulary," she says. In addition, the Colorado Historical Society, which runs the CHM, doesn't actively collect quilts, or anything else, and never has.

Nevertheless, the historical society obviously had a lot of interesting quilts stored in its nooks and crannies. That's because it's the logical place for people to donate quilts with either historic or artistic interest.

To fill out the show, Zahller borrowed pieces from private collectors and local institutions. Her idea was to explore the diversity of quilts made in Colorado from the nineteenth century to the present by displaying the widest array of styles possible and connecting them with a subtext that looks at the ethnic traditions in which each was made.

The show is fairly light on documentary material and labeling; it was conceived on an art-museum model as opposed to being of the history-museum type, as one might expect. (Is it just me, or are the art museum's shows getting more like history-museum presentations while the history museum's exhibits get more like the art museum's?)

Visually, Quiltspeak is stunning. A deep red color has been used on the walls, making the mostly lighter-colored quilts seem to jump off them. The red also unifies the various galleries into a single processional space. The color was chosen by David Newell, the CHM's exhibition designer, who also oversaw the clever installation: Several quilts hang from the walls; one hangs from the ceiling so that both sides are visible; and another rests in a showcase where it's been paired with a dress owned by the woman who made the quilt.

One of the first quilts visitors see is "Entering New Territory," by Judith Trager. By placing this quilt at the entrance to the show, Zahller indicates how profoundly different her approach is from a traditional historical exhibit, as the quilt dates from 1993 and is one of the newest things here.

Trager was inspired to make the quilt after reading an article in Boulder's The Daily Camera about the resettlement of Russian Jews in Boulder. She contacted some of these immigrants and has tried to abstractly capture what they told her. Using a dense and boldly colored random pattern, she has attempted to convey both movement and the idea of coming out of the darkness and into the light -- all with nothing more than various shapes of patterned silk, cotton and rayon fabrics called blocks. Through the use of specific colors, triangles of metallic cloth appliquéd onto the fabric blocks refer to Jews and gays during the Holocaust.

Further on is another politically charged quilt, "Bondage," which was done by Julia Payne from 1995 to 1997. The quilt, an exploration of the African-American experience, has been sandwiched between two sheets of transparent plastic so that both its sides are visible. On one side is a scene of a man being lynched; the other shows the slave trade from Africa to America. Payne uses a number of different techniques, including hand and machine stitching, embroidery, trapunto and painting. She has laid out an elaborate symbolic guide to the meanings of the various colors and shapes she uses, and the CHM has listed them in a didactic panel mounted below the quilt.

Trager and Payne both infuse their quilts with narrative content and techniques that are assembled in non-traditional ways, but most of the quilts in Quiltspeak, even the comtemporary ones, are traditional types.

Opposite Payne's quilt are a pair of noteworthy modern examples using age-old patterns. "Sister's Choice," done in the 1980s and 1990s, is a magnificent geometric abstraction in the star pattern. The top of the quilt was pieced in the mid-'80s by two elderly Loveland sisters, Sabena Winegarden and Eva Bauer. It was their custom to piece quilt tops and donate them to their church's women's group, who would finish and sell them to raise money. This quilt top was not donated to the church, however; it was purchased by a collector who asked the Last Chance Quilters (the oldest quilting group in the state, founded in the 1920s) to complete it.

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