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Stitches in Time

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

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.

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.  

Next to "Sister's Choice" is "My Mother Taught Me to Sew," by Faye Anderson, from 1988. It's a richly detailed quilt that's a technical tour de force -- it is made up of 99 individual appliquéd panels framed by a border of undulating lines. Anderson, a Boulder quilter, uses fifty different patterns of hearts, hands, flowers and baskets. As indicated by the title, this quilt salutes her mother, but it's also meant to refer to an 1870 quilt that Anderson found inspiring.

Around the corner in a small niche is a subtly elegant quilt hanging behind a protective panel, "Tumbling Blocks Autograph Quilt," done around 1880 by Emma Schoefield Wright. An established artist, Wright was the wealthy daughter of a Burlington Northern railroad executive who began collecting autographs of notables of the day, including presidents Grant and Arthur, as well as radicals and suffragists. She would have the dignitaries sign an individual block of fabric before she sewed it into the quilt. Around the autograph blocks is a border that's embellished by Wright's paintings of flowers, buildings and still-life scenes. Wright's quilt is one of the finest things in the show.

Also very good is Carrie Shirley's 1917 "Tobacco Flag Quilt," in which the flags of the world are printed on flannel and attached to a red sateen backing. The flannel flags were a cigarette premium at the time. The corner of each flag block is tied with a matching red thread. Zahller points out the ingenuity this quilt demonstrates, with Shirley using material that was readily available to her. This thrifty recycling is a key feature of quilt-making, because quilts are put together out of scraps of cloth that would otherwise be discarded.

One of the strangest quilts in the show is "It's a Pond's Life," by Kathy Emmel, with help from her fifth grade class at Arvada's Weber Elementary. Emmel, an accomplished quilter, used a field trip to Meadowglow Pond as the starting point for this very high-tech quilt. Emmel had the students use computers, iron-on fabric with fusible webbing, and automatic embroidery machines to lay out the pond and its teeming life forms and to put each of the student-artists' heads (on insect bodies, no less) onto the border of the quilt, using photocopy transfers on fabric.

Among the many other fine pieces is the enchanting "Cathedral Windows," by Daisy Ortega, done in the 1960s. It's a coverlet in which colored diamond shapes are framed in white.

The show ends with a room full of quilts, including one that has been laid out on a bed, reminding us that quilts are meant to be bed coverings and not to be hung on walls like paintings.

Just a block west, in the DAM's Neusteter Textile Gallery is a very different kind of exhibit, Preserving Patterns: The Quilts of Charlotte Jane Whitehill, put together by Alice Zrebiec, the museum's textile curator.

Whitehill, who had dabbled in quilt-making since childhood, began to pursue the art seriously in 1929 while living in Emporia, Kansas, at the time a national quilt-making center. In 1940, she moved to Denver, where she continued her art. She donated nearly twenty of her quilts to the DAM in 1955; she died in 1964, at the age of 99. Since then, Whitehill's quilts have rarely been exhibited. The current show is said to be a response to repeated requests by the public to see the quilts, which are legendary in local quilt circles.

Whitehill sometimes designed her own quilts, but she usually modeled them on earlier works by other quilters, which is why the show is called Preserving Patterns. A good example is "Autumn Leaf," from 1934, which Whitehill based on a quilt done for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The cotton quilt, done in yellows and greens on a white field, features leaf, twig and geometric shapes, and has an incredible zigzag trim around the edges.

"Oriental Poppy," from 1936, was also inspired by Chicago's history and is based on a fragment of a quilt that was salvaged after the Chicago Fire. In this quilt, blocks are decorated by a conventionalized floral form with an element in the center and four radiating arms.

One of the most beautiful quilts -- though all of the Whitehills are breathtaking in their simplicity and refinement -- is "Album Quilt in the Lennartson Family Pattern," done in 1945. It sports a variety of motifs, including grapevines, a pinwheel of tulips and a four-pointed star of daisies. The forms are all abstracted and done in pieces of red, pink, orange and purple fabric, both printed with patterns and plain. As with all the quilts in this show, the background field is white.  

Another dazzling quilt is "Indiana Wreath," one of the most complicated patterns in this group. Medallions are formed from urns filled with grapes and flowers surrounded by a floral and grape wreath.

Preserving Patterns is the perfect followup to Quiltspeak, and considering their shared topic and the short walk between the two museums, they'd be the perfect things to see on some chilly day in the very near future.


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