25 December 2013

Modern Quilting Exhibit and Denyse Schmidt Workshop

Snake Charmer. Designed by Denyse Schmidt, made by Barbara Bergantz and Janice Roy.
In November my quilt lust took me to the New England Quilt Museum (NEQM), for a modern quilt trifecta:  1) The Roots of Modern Quilting exhibit, 2) a lecture by Denyse Schmidt, sort of the godparent of the Modern Quilt movement,  and 3) a companion workshop led by Ms. Schmidt. The exhibit, on display from October 10 - December 28, 2013, and curated by NEQM staff curator Pamela Weeks, featured both modern quilts and historic examples from which the modern quilts are derived.

Snail Trail, maker unknown, c. 1940. Pilgrim Roy collection.

Denyse Schmidt's Snake Charmer has its origins in the traditional Snail Trail pattern, also known as Rattlesnake. Traditional quilt patterns often have multiple monikers, often varying by region or time period. 

Visitors at the exhibit.

So, many modern quilts abstract or simplify traditional patterns.  Another characteristic of modern quilt making is an improvisational approach to design, as seen in the image below, a detail of a quilt by Angela Walters Kearney. Ms. Kearney describes her process in  making this quilt, which is pieced using a additive method based, ultimately, on traditional log cabin construction:
I started with the technique and let it build from there. I wasn't sure what it would look like until it was finished.
Yet, there is nevertheless an element of control  - improvisation does not equate with random - as the color palette is carefully balanced, with the white fabric used in every third or fourth row.  Again, this approach is rooted in tradition, as the rural and impoverished quilters of Gee's Bend - improvisers  through necessity -  also used the materials at hand in a deliberate and thoughtful manner.
Impracticality, Angela Walters Kearney. Detail.

In addition, many modern quilts have a social or political message, such as the striking quilt below, a commentary on gun violence in Chicago.  This artifact juxtaposes medium and message - the soft tactility of the fabric medium versus the harsh reality of the message - to great effect.  Although this was not highlighted in the exhibit, quilts have long been used to express political beliefs, so this work of social commentary is also part of the quilting tradition.

Bang, You're Dead. Jacquie Gering.

The parallels drawn between historic and new quilts are attenuated by the awkward compartmentalization of the exhibit space, and there are some omissions, most notably artists Weeks Ringle and Bill Kerr, but overall Ms. Weeks has curated an important and noteworthy exhibit.

Left: Hawaiian-style applique, Denyse Schmidt, 2011.  Right: Blue Hawaiian, maker unknown, c. 1920.

As part of this exhibit, Denyse Schmidt gave a lecture and workshop at the museum.  Since 1996 Ms. Schmidt has been creating quilts at her workshop in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her lecture led us through her history of making things, rooted in her parents' confident craftsmanship in woodworking and home sewing, and their expectation that if one needed something, say, a graduation dress or shelf unit, one could most likely make it.  In addition, Ms. Schmidt grew up in central Massachusetts at a time when mill end stores were next door to actual textile mills. This background, interwoven with various threads in her life (pun intended) including folk dance, and graphic design studies at RISD, eventually led to quilt-making.

As Ms. Schmidt makes clear in her recent book Modern Quilts Traditional Inspiration, her contemporary quilts are very much based on classic quilt patterns, distilled to their essence, realized in Ms. Schmidt's color palettes, with a result that is quite contemporary.

Sewing stations and Denyse's scrap bags, ready to go.

The sold-out Improvisational Piecing workshop started with a deceptively simple assignment: beginning with the "small" bag, pull scraps at random and stitch together in the log-cabin technique. With a twenty-minute or so deadline, we had to work quickly, trimming as necessary, and drawing from the "medium" and "large" bags as the  blocks grew and required larger pieces.  The time pressure and the random selection of fabric pieces - no peeking - prevented the second-guessing, doubt and general indecision that can sometimes paralyze the quilt maker.

A fortuitous combination of fabrics.

Once we had completed our first blocks, Ms. Schmidt pinned them to a large piece of felt.  Due to the standard piecing technique, and communal scrap bags, the blocks "played" together surprisingly well.  Following some discussion of our reactions to the process, it was back to the bags and sewing machines. 

Denyse gives us encouragement.

The wall of blocks.

I have always enjoyed unconventional color combinations, and just went with the flow.  I've found, over years of attending workshops, that I'm a happier camper if I don't worry too much about the end product, but just try to follow the teacher's methodology and "try it on for size."

During the latter part of the workshop we were allowed to incorporate one fabric we brought from home, using it any way we wished, thus recovering some degree of control over fabric selection. Decisions regarding how much of our fabric to use, and where, highlighted the need to constantly question assumptions about color, value and scale.

We used blue painter's tape to view our blocks.

My blocks, now in Bridgeport.

Ms. Schmidt asks workshop attendees to kindly consider donating one or more blocks, which her studio incorporates into quilts which are raffled off, with the proceeds benefiting a local charity. While I will miss my blocks, I hope they will be made into one of these donation quilts.  Utilizing quilts, modern or classic, to raise money for a cause has long been part of our quilting heritage.