The 'Earth Stories' Exhibit
Quilts Address Environmental Issues

'Earth Stories' at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles is offered
with Studio Art Quilts Associatesto promote art quilt through education and exhibitions.
Figaro FORM OVER FUNCTION: Many of the quilts on display at the current 'Earth Stories' exhibit are purely aesthetic creations, divorced from utility. Carol Larson's 'Torn Earth' is actually two pieces of contiguous cloth.

In the minds of many, the word "quilt" likely conjures images of pastel patchworks arranged in geometric patterns. They are purely utilitarian objects, sewn by grandma—meant to keep you warm in the winter and to lay folded at the foot of the bed the rest of the year.

This is not the case with the quilts on display at "Earth Stories," a juried exhibition of 24 art quilts currently on display at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. The environmentally themed show is offered in conjunction with Studio Art Quilts Associates, an organization dedicated to promoting the art quilt through education and exhibitions. It will run through February.

"This is the first SAQA exhibition we have hosted," museum curator Nancy Bavor says. "The works deal with issues that the world—and, in particular, California—is struggling with, such as water and energy use, recycling and conservation of natural resources."

The SAQA has around 3,000 members, all of whom were invited to submit entry proposals. The quilters were asked to create designs celebrating both individuals and small groups that are working on projects that make a positive impact on improving the quality of life on Earth.

From thousands of entries, guest juror Carolyn Mazloomi (a quilt historian) selected just two dozen. According to the exhibition catalog, Mazloomi chose quilts with the most "compelling themes and those with strong portfolios with great use of color, design and technical skill." And while the quilts consist mainly of machine-sewn fabric, they also utilize painting, dyeing, collage, applique and photo transfer.

As Bavor notes, "These are not your grandmother's quilts!"

Take for example Tender Bellys by Annie Helmericks-Louder, a piece inspired by Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's cautionary chronicle of the dangers of sweeping pesticide use. Hand-dyed fabrics are collaged and stitched to create an almost tapestry-like depiction of birds and flora, peacefully coexisting and interdependent. The detail of each and every object is amazing and incredibly true to life.

The quilts were inspired by such diverse causes as solar cooking, the National Geographic Genographic Project and The Turtle Conservancy, to name a few, and come from all corners of the globe. There are several, however, with local themes.

Carol Larson celebrates the work of Architecture for Humanity with Torn Earth. The piece comprises two separate sections of dye-painted and screen-printed strips of fabric which hang side by side. On the right, the strips rest atop one another, representing Earth's crustal instabilities. On the left side, the strips are helter-skelter, depicting the destructive energies released during an earthquake.

Reflecting just how far afield the term "art quilt" can extend is the work of Mirjam Pet-Jacobs from the Netherlands. In Light Towers, she chooses to honor the work of Royal Philips Electronics for developing an energy-saving light bulb. The piece consists of several layers of silk and silk organza, hanging from two rods. In between the silk is a grid on which strings of lights are woven. The light shines through the transparent silk, which has been screen-printed with drawings of light bulbs. It's a bright and eye-catching work but nothing you could curl up under.

Quilts have always been a means of artistic expression—woven for purely aesthetic purposes and disconnected entirely from utility. Long relegated to the realm of function, decoration and "woman's work," the quilt has evolved into an art form to be reckoned with.

"These artists are essentially painting with fabric," Bavor observes, "and, in some cases, paint and thread too."

Walking around the exhibition, visitors may at first be drawn to the bright colors, powerful imagery and incredible workmanship of each piece. But Bavor hopes that the messages behind the work—some of which are controversial, such as the quilt dedicated to the work of the International Planned Parenthood Federation—end up surprising patrons and giving them something to chew on. Besides granny's famous oatmeal cookies, that is.

Sheryl Nonnenberg is an art researcher/writer. [email protected]

Earth Stories
Thru Feb 28
San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles

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