Miranda, The Tempest, 2001, by Christine Fries-Ureel
80 in. by 66 in.
In July 2007 my wife and I made our second visit to Vermont’s Shelburne Museum. The museum’s website captures the spirit of the place best:
Shelburne Museum is one of the nation’s finest, most diverse, and unconventional museums of art and Americana. Over 150,000 works are exhibited in a remarkable setting of 39 exhibition buildings, 25 of which are historic and were relocated to the Museum grounds.
The Shelburne Museum is a combination historical village, crafts and fine art museum, filled with Impressionist paintings, folk art, quilts and textiles, decorative arts, furniture, and American paintings. You enter the museum through a majestic round Vermont barn, and can visit the lighthouse, vintage railroad station and even a wonderful 1950s ranch house, in situ, furnished in period style. There’s even a magnificent and landlocked steamship, the Ticonderoga.
The Steamboat Ticonderoga
My wife fell in love with the Electra Havemayer Webb Memorial Building which houses the museum’s collection of Impressionist paintings and artworks.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) – Repetition au Foyer (Rehearsal Studio), About 1874 – Egg tempera on canvas
But what caught my eye during our last visit was the display of contemporary Vermont quilts in the round barn. I hadn’t known that the art of quilting had evolved to rival the finest of contemporary paintings. Indeed, the art quilt grew out of the quilt revival that began in America in the 1960s and continues today. By the 1970s artists were experimenting with new construction methods and surface-design treatments, producing innovative and powerful works-in-fabric in abstract, narrative, figurative, and nature-based designs, forcing the medium to the forefront of the contemporary art scene.
In 1971 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York presented Abstract Design in American Quilts, an exhibition that marked a turning point in the appreciation of the quilt. The Whitney show caused a sensation, eliciting glowing reviews from a host of major art critics. The response of Hilton Kramer in The New York Times typifies the critical take on the show:
The suspicion persists that the most authentic visual articulation of the American imagination in the last century is to be found in the so-called ‘minor’ arts—especially in the visual crafts that had their origins in the workaday functions of regional life. . . . For a century or more preceding the self-conscious invention of pictorial abstraction in European painting, the anonymous quilt-makers of the American provinces created a remarkable succession of visual masterpieces that anticipated many of the forms that were later prized for their originality and courage.
At the Shelburne exhibition I was mesmerized by the pre-Raphaëlite imagery of Christine Fries-Ureel’s Miranda: The Tempest (2001, 80″ x 66″). This original adaptation of a pre-Raphaëlite painting took ten months to make. I had to look closely at the surface of the quilt to appreciate the workmanship that went into its making. To quote the artist:
In order for my adaptation to work, I had to find a way to represent stormy ocean waves breaking along the shore. I did it by carefully cutting and arranging pieces of mostly hand-painted fabric (made by Mickey Lawler) for the waves and foam, then curving the quilting lines in perspective to create the individual wave contours, giving the illusion of three-dimensional waves actually curling over and crashing along the shore. I touched up a few spots with white fabric paint to help represent sea spray against the cliffs and ship. To make Miranda’s dress, I fastened the material the way I wanted it to lie, forming folds. The first dress I made was an intense blue. When that color proved difficult to coordinate with the rest of the quilt, I made a green dress, which worked better. To make her hair, I sewed one stand at a time. I fashioned a minipurse of suède leather for her, sewing it onto her belt. If you peek inside you’ll find tiny seashells, tiny dried rose buds, and a small lace handkerchief.
I was also taken with the more traditional quilt work of Vermont artist Eliza Greenhoe-Bergh’s Cliff’s Quilt (1985, cotton, machine pieced, hand quilted, 72″ x 72″), reflecting the original purpose of the American quilt: to capture personal and family history. Historically, quilts have often told personal and family stories, incorporating bits of fabric from important life events. Quilts make us think of warmth and protection and nurturing.
Snowflakes by Eliza Greenhoe-Bergh (2000, cotton, machine pieced, machine quilted, 76″ x 94″)
Cliff’s Quilt by Eliza Greenhoe-Bergh (1985, cotton, machine pieced, hand quilted, 72″ x 72″)
The exhibtion label provides the story behind Cliff’s Quilt:
I made this quilt for my husband. It depicts our house as it looked when my parents bought it in 1959. In the borders I used half Carpenter’s Squares because he was building his house at the time, Christmas trees for our small tree farm and the Lover’s Knot quilting pattern.
Finally, when considering the evolution of the Amerian quilt, one must address the AIDS Quilt. The AIDS Quilt consists of hand-sewn panels, each 3 by 6 feet, each commemorating one person who died from AIDS. The choice of a quilt format is especially meaningful. Quilting has traditionally been a community activity, so it is natural that a community of grief should form among those grieving death.
The AIDS quilt on the Washington, D.C., Mall October 11, 1996
A Crazy Quilt of Resources by Nann Blaine Hilyard (Library Journal; 10/1/2004, Vol. 129 Issue 16, p53-55)
Web Glossary of Quilting Terms
Christine Fries-Ureel International Award Winning Quilt Artist
Quilts and Quiltmaking in America 1978-1996 (From the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress)