Inspired by Quilts
Curated by Virginia S. Block, Jane Mitchell Eliasof and Yvette Lucas
Studio Montclair Gallery
127 Bloomfield Ave.
Through Oct. 19
Many SMI artists have posted their websites and photos of their work at StudioMontclair.org. The registry is searchable by name, medium, or style.
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By ELIZABETH OGUSS
For all that quilts may connote cozy notions of “Grannie Lou and her scrap basket,” the matter of whether they are to be considered art was settled definitively by the Whitney Museum’s legendary 1971 exhibit of American quilts.
Long before modern art became abstract, ordinary people were creating abstract beauty in a medium that wasn’t considered art, or was at least beneath the notice of art critics and museums. But quiltmakers in every era have been masters of color and design, and one reviewer of that 1971 exhibit used words like “dazzling” and “masterpiece.”
Quilters have always taken inspiration from the world around them — history, architecture, peonies — so it’s very satisfying that the work of the 19th- and early 20th-century quilters has itself inspired a diverse and beautiful exhibit of contemporary art in Studio Montclair Inc.’s current show, “Inspired by Quilts,” which opened last week and runs through Oct. 19.
Each year Studio Montclair (SMI), a nonprofit organization of professional and emerging artists, collaborates with a different creative organization or nonprofit to create new art and reach new audiences. This year its partner is the Montclair History Center (MHC), which has a rich collection of antique quilts.
“Inspired by Quilts” was curated by Virginia S. Block and Yvette Lucas of Studio Montclair, and Jane Mitchell Eliasof, executive director of MHC.
Eliasof invited Studio Montclair artists to see the History Center’s quilts and to consider their place in history, their materials and methods, and their makers.
Of course many artists today work in fiber and some of the artists in “Inspired by Quilts” are quilters and fiber artists, but many aren’t, and the three dozen or so artworks in “Inspired by Quilts” encompass sculpture, photography, collage, works on paper, encaustic and acrylic on canvas, and ceramics.
SMI’s gallery is a bite-size space on Bloomfield Avenue, but allow more time than you think you’ll need to see the exhibit, because you’ll want to take more than one turn around the gallery.
Some of the artworks are actual quilts, or literal images of quilts, like Norman Rosenblum’s photo of a room with a bed.
Others conjure the idea of quilts, such as Alfonse Pagano’s “Tapa,” small panels of rice paper laid out in neat rows; and Betsy Meyer-Donadio’s “Grid Series 2,” mixed media of canvas, acrylic paint, pages of books and cold wax. (I’m not a collector, but I looked hopefully at the price for Meyer-Donadio’s piece.)
With others, the connection is more remote, but even quilts themselves aren’t only about quilts.
“Inspired” is a good exhibit to take children to, to help them develop the habit of careful looking. Challenge them to find some of the materials used in the making of this art: teabags, postage stamps, thread and buttons, pottery shards, vintage clothes hangers and rust. Let them see how a familiar idea — bed coverings — gives rise to such a diverse response in artists.
Maria Lupo uses unconventional materials in her work. Her “Tea and Sympathy: a women’s toil” is made of stitched-together used teabags, giving an overall effect of a puffy quilt. In a phone interview, Lupo said she thinks of it as “a comfort quilt.” The surface is colored with metallic paint and embellished with religious charms and medals.
This is Lupo’s second teabag quilt. An avid tea drinker (and keeper-out of things from landfills), she’d used many dozens of teabags in an earlier project, so for “Tea and Sympathy” she had help from tea-drinking friends.
In her work as an art therapist in a medical setting, Lupo says she tells her patients, “Why don’t you come out, let’s make some art together.” Art is a way “to end isolation, to bring people together.”
That’s what working together on quilts gave to women of earlier generations, Lupo says: “peace, solace, and sisterly support.”
And yes, the work references the famous saying attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, that women are like teabags, you can’t tell how strong they are until they’re in hot water.
Rosenblum’s untitled color inkjet photo of a bed in a many-windowed room is a story waiting to be told. The walls are rough, the utility shelves that line them nearly empty. The floor is filthy. Through curtainless windows you see a landscape so untamed that tall grasses and sapling trees brush against the windows. In the middle of this unsettling interior and invading exterior is a bed with a vintage-seeming quilt. Hard to say if it’s a comfort object!
Sarah Fader’s quilt “Shell Game” catches the eye even before you enter the gallery. Its bright red, green, and black pieced top is very reminiscent of the famous quilts of Gee’s Bend, the African-American community of quilters.
Though “Shell Game” is not explicitly a tribute to the Alabama quilters, Fader said that her quilt, “and all art, is based on what’s come before, so it’s an ongoing conversation.”
Fader is a quilter. She says she’s not an expert sewist (her corners aren’t perfect). But “One of the things that has me stick with it is how the process of making is healing, and it’s almost like therapy.
“A lot of quilters will tell you that. … People who think they’re not artists — I never thought of myself as one — can still find benefit in the act of making.
“If you understand that the result isn’t always the reason to do something, the process is the point, the process can be healing.”
At first look, Rachel Kanter’s “With Our Hands” is a simple wall hanging suspended from vintage hangers and made from nine-patch blocks pieced from vintage 1930s fabric: clear saturated pastels, with ditsy prints and larger-scale prints. The overall effect is just yummy!
But the sweet colors coexist with serious intention: the piece was designed as a curtain wall for the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary in which the Jews kept the Ark of the Covenant while in exile.
In her artist’s statement, Kanter writes that “With Our Hands” is “based on a Jewish text from Exodus about the building of the Mishkan. The Israelites, both men and women, were commanded to gather specific valuable materials to create the Mishkan. It was not only these materials, but also the involvement of the community, that built this sacred space.”
“I am always very touched by vintage quilts that I find at an antique store or garage sale,” Kanter said in an email interview. “Someone spent hundreds of hours creating the quilt and I can feel their hands working when I look at it.
“The women (I’m assuming women, but I guess it could be men also) who made them are anonymous.”
The white center square of each nine-patch bears an appliquéd fabric tracing of the artist’s hand. Along the sashing between the blocks are inked in hundreds of women’s names — Frances Phyllis Jeanette Beth Annette Helen Doris — taken from the memorial lists in Kanter’s childhood synagogue. “While I know who some of the women are, it is not necessary to know them,” Kanter said.
“‘With Our Hands’ celebrates the nameless, anonymous women who are the builders and keepers of sacred spaces.”
“Inspired by Quilts” includes one group project. SMI invited the WAE Center community to contribute a wall quilt. WAE stands for Wellness, Art, Enrichment and is a program of Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled. WAE members created 12-inch squares in several different mediums. Thirty-five were assembled into a community “quilt.” The disparate panels in the quilt are inventive and fun.
The intersectionality of culture in Montclair is one of the best things about living here, and “Inspired by Quilts” is a satisfying example of it. Thumbnails of the artwork are available on SMI’s website, and images of the quilts that inspired the exhibit can be seen at the gallery.