In 2002, 70 quilts from Gee’s Bend, an isolated African-American community in rural Alabama, were displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Before art dealer Bill Arnett paid thousands of dollars for some of these quilts, the women who made them considered the brightly colored, improvisational-style blankets utilitarian objects not worth much because they were not made in the traditional painstaking style taught to generations of women as “real quilting.” One woman even burned her old quilts with the trash, according to a Smithsonian article titled “Fabric of Their Lives,” about a follow-up exhibit.
“The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” traveled to 11 other U.S. museums and was hailed as a showcase of modern art objects, essentially blowing the doors off the American public’s perception of quilting. These days, however, quilting is definitely viewed as an art form, and variety and innovation are as much a mainstay of the quilting world as traditional technique. Case in point: Steve and Ann Loveless of Northern Michigan, the winners of last year’s Public Vote Grand Prize at the Grand Rapids art spectacle ArtPrize, won for their piece combining traditional photography, hand-dyed textiles and tiled fabrics that took more than 1,000 hours to create.
And as anyone with half a minute and a Pinterest account can tell you, the Internet is chock-full of images showcasing everything from dizzying geometric quilts to chic pillowcases made out of repurposed fabric scraps. There appears to be plenty of room in our national lexicon these days for quilting to encompass any style you want to tackle, and the same seems to be true for Kalamazoo.
What’s in a name?
Traditionally speaking, quilts are blankets of any size made of three required layers stitched together: a front, middle and back. Their fronts, or tops, can be “pieced” — made with repeating shapes or blocks of fabric stitched together — or with one big piece of fabric appliquéd with smaller, more ornamental fabric, or a combination of these options. The middle part, the batting, makes up the blanket’s fluffy, soft quality, while the backs, another layer of fabric, can be as plain or complex as a quiltmaker desires.
Quilting is the stitching that runs through these three layers. It can be done by hand or machine. Some people, like Kalamazoo quilt artist Nina Feirer, skip this step entirely, outsourcing it to someone else.
Feirer, a 60-year-old Kalamazoo mother of four, stepmother of one and grandmother of twins, collaborates with fellow artist Patrick Whalen to create award-winning “art quilts.” Art quilts are original quilts made primarily for display and sometimes highly embellished. The pair’s “Sometimes You’re the Goat, Sometimes You’re the Tiger,” a large work made of cotton, silk and sateen materials and hand-pieced by Feirer in lively, wildly patterned blocks, won this year’s Art Quilt Award from Kalamazoo’s Log Cabin Quilters guild. It is on display until July 10 at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts’ West Michigan Area Show, and the People’s Choice Award voting is open until July 8.
The term “art quilt” grew out of a resurgence of interest in quilting led by American artists like Michael James in the 1970s and, even earlier, Jean Ray Laury in the 1950s and 1960s. In the book The Art Quilt, American folk art expert Robert Shaw writes, “Interest in handcrafts of all kinds was a strong element of the youth rebellion of the 1960s.”
Many art quilters are still driven by the urge to depart from the norm. Feirer, for one, deviates from using traditional quilt blocks, instead piecing together various sizes of rectangles, triangles and strips to see where the fabric takes her.
“I get bored making traditional quilts,” she says, “but a traditional block can be a great starting point or detail in one of my quilts.”
Whalen, who co-owns Textile Art Gallery in Michigan City and does quilting for other artists, says about working on a Feirer quilt: “There is always what seems like a structure, but then it gets disheveled in color swirls. Her work is always evolving into this incredible thing that is completely hers.”
Last year Whalen and Feirer won the 2015 West Michigan Area Show People’s Choice Award for a quilt called “Eclipse.” They won their first Art Quilt Award in 2011 for “Blue, Not Gloomy,” and another award in 2014 for “The Wonder of It All.”
Quilting with a Modern Slant, by Rachel May, is one of hundreds of gorgeously photographed books packed into the crafting bookshelves at a local bookstore. Published in 2014, the book documents more than 70 artists who are engaged in “modern” quilting, which The Modern Quilt Guild website describes as “primarily functional and inspired by modern design.”
Modern quilters tend to use bold colors and high-contrast designs and may favor improvisation or minimalism, all of which retired Bangor Public Schools art teacher and former watercolorist Jacqueline Skarritt does.
Now a fiber artist based in Kalamazoo, Skarritt hand-dyes her own fabrics and makes both modern and art quilts. Her work has been accepted into Houston’s International Quilt Festival and The American Quilt Society’s show in Paducah, Kentucky, dubbed by some as “the quilt Mecca.”
She currently has two quilts on display in the West Michigan Area Show, including one multicolored, row-by-row piece that records a year’s worth of daily temperatures and glows against the museum’s white walls.
The piece, titled “One Hundred and Ten Degrees: The 2015 Temperature Quilt,” won the 2016 Kalamazoo Knitting Guild Award for Fiber.
Skarritt says exhibiting her work is not her main motivation for quilting, though. “I do it because I love it,” she says. “If other people happen to see it, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s great too.”
To make “One Hundred and Ten Degrees,” Skarritt relied on local television channels, weather updates on her iPad, and the Weather History page of the national weather website Weather.org for information about temperatures throughout the year.
A project with daily discipline was good for her, she says, because she normally has about 30 or 40 projects going at once. “I go from one to the other, and they are really fun. However, half of them will never get finished. It keeps the mind active, but it’s really good to have a goal of some kind in mind — a deadline or a limitation.”
She says the modern quilt world and the art quilt world both allow for individual freedom, and that’s always been high on her priority list.
When asked how many quilts she’s made, she gasps, then says, “Oh, my gosh! I have no idea. Hundreds.”
Skarritt works in her finished basement, designed specifically as an art studio six years ago when she and her husband, also once a Bangor Public Schools teacher, moved back to Kalamazoo, when they retired.
Writing, collaging, quilting
While it isn’t a prerequisite for picking up the art form, most people who get into quilting have been sewing since childhood or at least early adulthood, when something about fabric piqued their interest and they were drawn to learning how to play with it.
Thisbe Nissen, associate professor of English at Western Michigan University, author of two novels and a collection of short stories, and co-author of a cookbook made of stories and art collages, grew up in New York City, where she loved going every Sunday to a flea market in a schoolyard on Columbus Avenue.
“There were people who sold old, traditional quilts, and I loved them,” says Nissen, now a resident of Battle Creek. Her parents bought a 1940s Kentucky quilt as a special present, and, though it has come apart,
Nissen tries to use pieces of it in other projects, such as quilts she makes as wedding presents and baby presents for friends.
“Writing, collaging and quilting all feel like the same thing,” she says. “I collect bits of stuff in the world that interest me, whether I’m cutting it out of magazines or noting details of things I pass, and I see what might go together.”
But this requires time, she says. “It requires time to stew with things, to hang out with those materials, those anecdotes, those clippings, and see how they might come together.”
As a teen, Nissen taught herself to sew, first by hand and then on a Singer machine bought at auction for $5. After inking a two-book deal and living on its spoils in rural Iowa, she finally went out and bought a new sewing machine at Walmart, a $150 model she still sews on today.
“I had been trying to quilt for a long time, but … I’m a perfectionist in some ways, but not that way,” she says. “I don’t have the patience for measuring and lines and perfect anything.”
Then, in the fall of 2005, she went to the MacDowell Colony, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, for an artist’s residency and met a woman who introduced herself as an improvisational quilter.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know what that is, but I love you and am going to follow you around now,’” says Nissen.
The woman was Sherri Lynn Wood, author of The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters and creator of daintytime.net, a website dedicated to modern quilting and craft therapy.
“What Sherri did was give me the license to quilt,” Nissen says. “I just thought, ‘I will never be a quilter because you have to be perfect and do all the cutting.’ But Sherri was like, ‘No you don’t. Here.’” She ripped a piece of fabric by hand to show Nissen how she could make cuts without caution.
Relief from PTSD
Some people, though, find freedom in the structure of traditional quilting. One of those is Mike Thompson, a retired police officer from Osceola, Indiana, who drives over an hour to Kalamazoo to buy fabric at the family-owned and -operated Quilts Plus, on Stadium Drive.
“Most men resist getting dragged into fabric stores,” Thompson says, but he admits he likes poking around when he travels with his wife, who also quilts. He makes Quilts of Valor, a specific style of quilt that often features red, white and blue fabrics or star patterns and is intended for veterans and active military personnel. He also makes quilts with Civil War themes and gives all of his quilts away to family or friends. The giving, he says, is a big part of the pleasure of making the quilts.
“I think there’s a stigma against men quilting,” he says. “A lot of my friends, when they found out what I was doing, they kind of cocked an eye at me. Of course, a lot of my friends are policemen, and they go, ‘Really?’ I go, ‘You oughta try it sometime.’”
Thompson, who now works part time as a court security guard, would not have stumbled onto quilting before retirement but, once retired, needed something to fill his time. “What some people don’t realize,” he says, “(is that) when police officers retire, especially after a long career, we suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the things we see.”
For many years Thompson’s job was to investigate child abuse. “It doesn’t get much worse than that,” he says. After he retired, he started having nightmares. “I found myself just dwelling on things.” But then he bought a kit for a quilt he liked and asked his wife to make it for him. He ended up making most of the quilt himself over one weekend and discovered that quilting kept him from thinking about anything else.
“Quilting takes one hundred percent of my concentration to do it right,” says Thompson. “Especially with these Quilts of Valor going to very deserving people, I’m going to give them the best of my effort.”
After he started quilting, the bad dreams and thoughts stopped. “I don’t know how many cops you can say are mentally sound,” he says, “but I guess my happy place — if you want to call it that — I contribute a lot of my happy place to quilting.”