People warming up to quiltmaking as an art

by Joe Carlson

Improvisational quiltmaking has gone far beyond its original purpose of keeping people warm in bed; in the last decade, it has come to be seen as a distinct art form.
Usually, improvisational quiltmakers start out by using the standard tradition of quilt construction — based on patterns and repetition — but then add unconventional colors and styles.
“By the time the quilt gets put together, there is no recognizable pattern,” said Susan Torntore, an administrative fellow for the Goldstein Gallery on the St. Paul campus.
A display opened Sunday at the Goldstein entitled “Who’d A Thought It: Improvisation in African American Quiltmaking.” The travelling display will run through March 30 and features the works of 27 African-American artists.
The exhibition opened Sunday with a reception and a slide presentation by Eli Leon, from Oakland, Calif. Leon is not only the curator of the traveling exhibit, but also the owner of the collection.
Improvisational quiltmaking uses several non-Western techniques, Leon said, such as approximate measuring and flexible patterning. “Westerners have such a preference for measuring that when they see something that is not precisely measured, they assume it is a mistake,” he said.
“Some of us making our quilts are such perfectionists, like this little wrinkle here,” said Jean Loken, indicating a crease sewn into one of the quilts in the Goldstein.
“But it doesn’t matter. Who cares?” said Loken, who is working with the Minnesota Quilting Project and quilts in her spare time.
Reni Kouessi-Tanoh Douah, a Michigan State graduate student from Africa studying American Studies, said that many people assume that “improvisational” means untrained or unskilled, which is not the case.
“Improvisation is a loaded term,” said Douah, who is the exhibit’s consultant.
Much like jazz musicians, improvisational quilters understand fundamental quilting techniques and have full control of their art. They turn to improvisation to gain greater flexibility of design. “There is more room to create than in the traditional European style of quiltmaking,” he said.
Traditional quilters strictly follow a pattern, which is often printed directly onto the fabric. But Leon said with this style of quilting, “one little mistake and the quilt is basically ruined.”
Improvisational quilters skirt that hazard with ease. “If a quilting block is too big, (the quilter) can just cut a piece,” Leon said. “If it’s too small she can add a strip.”
Leon said that placing quilts on display in a gallery setting can be slightly awkward, because they were not made with art in mind.
“Most African-American quilts are made to be used in beds,” Leon said. “They’re not made to hang on walls.”
But that aspect of the exhibit is perfectly welcome in the Goldstein, which holds exhibits that highlight the aesthetics of day-to-day living. “The Goldstein is a museum that deals with art in everyday life,” said Sue Baizerman, director of the Goldstein.
But the process of designing the exhibit was difficult. “Even though I had photos of the quilts before I started (constructing the exhibit), I was really unprepared for the irregular shapes of the quilts,” said Fancy Trice, an administrative fellow at Goldstein who was responsible for setting up much of the gallery.
The uncertainty in planning might have actually contributed to the overall feel of the exhibit, however, as the organizers were forced to improvise some of the displays because of the large sizes and irregular shapes of the quilts. For example, because of a lack of wall space, some quilts had to be placed in display boxes that were not part of the original design.
“We had to use our imaginations to figure out a way to make it work,” Baizerman said.
Loken said that hanging the quilts in galleries can bring out elements of a quilt that were not apparent when it was sewn. “When you see them on the wall, you see new things about them,” said Loken.
“You may have pieced it without seeing it from a distance … when you see it like that, it’s amazing.”
The exhibition was supported by Minnesota Quilters, Colorful Quilts and Textiles, Wayzata Quilting Emporium, Twin City Home and Community section of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, the College of Human Ecology and the Friends of the Goldstein Gallery.

— Freelance Reporter Nancy Ngo contributed to this report