CHAMBERSBURG – The Council for the Arts (103 N. Main St.) will hold a closing reception for its exhibit “Purpose-Repurpose” from 1-3 p.m. on Sunday, April 23. Contributing artists – and light refreshments – will be on hand.
If the concept of quilting as a fine art is new to you, you’re probably not alone, but “Purpose-Repurpose” is an excellent place to start.
“Purpose-Repurpose” is a Studio Art Quilters Associates regional exhibition, and the participating artists hail from the mid-Atlantic region and as far south as North Carolina. It was originally staged at the Mansion in Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland. When it closed, Andrea Finch, gallery coordinator for Council for the Arts, suggested they bring the show to Chambersburg.
The group show features more than 30 examples of fine art quilting demonstrating the medium’s ability to arrange (and rearrange) leftover and reclaimed materials in new configurations with new meanings within new contexts.
Some of the materials used in the exhibit include deconstructed men’s ties, war surplus tarps, kimono fabric, commercial clothing labels, and – in many cases – remnants of old quilts that have been disassembled and reassembled specifically for this show.
What elevates these pieces to the level of fine art is that the disparate fabric pieces are stitched together with elements of storytelling, improvisation, social commentary, and intense emotion that go far beyond any of the physical materials involved.
“Quilting can be just the same as painting, as poetry,” said Andrea Finch in an interview recorded in early March.
In addition to her work with the council, Finch is a SAQA member and fiber artist. In her own work, she approaches quilting as more of a mixed media product. Her pieces are sculptural, representational and floral. Her contribution to the show was in the Strathmore Mansion leg of the tour, but it is absent from the Chambersburg show because it sold.
In a 2019 interview for the Foundry Art Market’s blog, Finch gave voice to some of the frustrations that fiber artists have encountered within the larger art world.
Critics dismissed them along gender lines – women who worked with fabric were making household goods, not art. The public ignored them because the line between fine art and the functional blanket your grandmother made was too subtle for comfort. Curators simply didn’t know what to do with them. Is it a sculpture? Is it a craft? Sometimes Finch would submit to shows as one, sometimes the other, gambling on which would be better received.
With this exhibit, however, the studio art quilters have a show of their own with which to demonstrate the breadth of what is possible through quilting.
Mac Barnes’ piece “E.B. 07/24/2021” makes connections between quilting and the Japanese pottery technique of kintsugi in which broken pieces are reassembled using gold in a powerful quilt exploring sexual assault and domestic violence.
Donna Blalock’s “Barely Contained Rage” redirects the rage (“usually at the patriarchy”) that she is otherwise unable to express directly into a frenetic abstract quilt where “angry lines formed with silks from deconstructed men’s ties and colored machine quilting/stitching interrupt and impose themselves upon the otherwise calm order.”
Holly Lei Cole’s “African Elephant Veteran” uses tarps, burlap and an emergency homeless blanket to create a 3D quilt depicting an elephant as a veteran of war “against encroachment on their territories, hunting for their body parts, and the battle against changing climates” to express both “the toughness of their battle and their fragility.”
Patty Kennedy-Zafred’s “American Portraits: Heart of the Family” consists of Dust Bowl era images silkscreened onto vintage feed sacks to pay tribute to “the strength, tenacity, and critical role of women, as they juggle multiple responsibilities as farmers, mothers, wives and daughters.”
Others, like Linda Syverson Guild’s “Corrupted,” play with repetition, form and structure. The description for the piece in the program defines the word corrupted: “To change the original form.”
The program booklet explains that “Purpose-Repurpose” demonstrates “how SAQA fiber artists continue the rich tradition of incorporating elements that would otherwise be discarded, turning them into compelling compositions. These artists use their scraps to create new work; they repurpose clothing and other textiles; they cut up and reimagine their quilts.”
“A lot of quilters reuse everything,” said Finch. “We just don’t throw things away.” She explained that within the world of fine art quilters, there is a backlash against using newer fabrics and that “there are a lot of quilters who have decided to not use new fabrics” on account of their environmental cost in terms of water usage and toxic dyes.
The studio art quilters like to say that these “aren’t your grandmother’s quilts,” but if you look closely, it’s possible that some of these pieces are literally made from actual fragments of their grandmother’s quilts (those same quilts that were originally fashioned out of repurposed, worn-out clothing).
The new generation of quilters – calling themselves fine art quilters, studio art quilters and fiber artists – have taken it apart and reassembled it into something new.
Just like their grandmothers did.
Everything that was considered old is still here, but this time around, in this configuration, we call it something new.