“Log Cabin, Barn Raising Setting,” maker unidentified, probably made in U.S., c. 1880-1910, 72” x 72.” Cotton, hand-pieced foundation, hand quilted

While St. Patrick got all the attention last month, National Quilting Day came and went March 18, barely noticed. If some forgot or were unable to celebrate, one can make amends by visiting Gallery 1516 and enjoying its current exhibition, “Modern Quilting on the Prairie,” on view through May 14.

Stepping away from prevailing and rote gallery offerings — painting, photography, installation and sculpture — the Omaha Modern Quilt Guild (OMQG) and Gallery 1516 present a dynamic, enlightening and comprehensive look at the aesthetics of the quilt.

Conceived before, and postponed by, the pandemic, “Modern Quilting on the Prairie” eventually came to fruition, with the guild collaborating with The International Quilt Museum (IQM) in Lincoln.

Nine Patch Variation,” maker unidentified, possibly made in Pennsylvania, c. 1940, 77” x 78.” Cotton, machine pieced, hand quilted

The exhibit consists of two parts. Nine vintage quilts were chosen from the IQM educational collection, each representing an aesthetic, construction or design category.

These on-loan examples, spanning early 19th century to 1977, were then paired with one or two contemporary quilts by OMQG artists, illustrating how current quilt makers apply certain aesthetic techniques.

Much of the IQM collection, over 6,000 pieces, is fragile and susceptible to damage from ultraviolet light and inappropriate handling. “The quilts in the educational collection have fewer restrictions on them,” said participating quilt artist and OMQG President Susie Bonder.

In keeping with the usual high standards of Gallery 1516, the show catalogue provides a thorough and accessible analysis of the nine categories and pairings, as well as clear, color photos of the work in the show.

Long, and somewhat mistakenly, associated with early American frontier life, grandmothers, pillowcases and bed covers, the quilt is now recognized internationally, collected and exhibited on an artistic level equal to those more known mediums.

Quilts have only one requirement — they are to be constructed of three layers. The top, the main visual component; the middle, a layer of filler called batting; and a backing, which is sometimes left plain and sometimes “finished,” but rarely as intricately as the top. Art quilts, sometimes referred to as studio art quilts or fine art quilts, identify further with three additional requirements: form (aesthetics, design) over function, individual expression and experimentation.

Art quilts tend to take more risks, employing more political and social statements, treating edges as design elements, ignoring the limits of the rectangle, for instance. Also, consider the increased availability of a wider selection of fabrics and prints to work from.

The word “quilt” conjures up patchwork patterns of balanced, repeating shapes, semi-symmetrical and asymmetrical arrangements, and even unbalanced, pictorial or abstracted jumbles. But even the initially chaotic, “crazy quilts,” popular in the late 1800s, are subject to some design parameters, planning, fabrics and thread choice, and correcting and editing.

Susie Bonder, “Damsel,” 2022, 31” x 48.” Hand embellishment and domestic machine quilting

Quilts can be handmade, machine made, or a combination. They can be hand-sewn, use an original hand-drawn pattern or commercial pattern, or be “pieced,” a method of drawing or cutting a paper pattern and sewing the fabric pieces to the paper.

There are embellishments such as “couching,” a method of applying yarn, ribbon or string to the surface; or adding buttons, photographs and other memorabilia; and edge treatments, adding macramé, as in Ellene McClay’s “Homage to Omaha.”

Quilts can be an album of personal events, or illustrate the personally meaningful, like the pictorial “Sandhill Cranes at Dusk” by Sheri Oakes and Mary Rudy.

The historic quilts, especially the earlier ones, rely on two foundational design elements: the grid and the frame, or border. Variations on the grid are found in the interplay of negative and positive space, alternating light and dark colors and shapes to simulate transparency and connecting shapes to create latticework or the impression of larger shapes and grids. Some forego the frame entirely. Check out “Log Cabin, Barn Raising” (ca. 1880-1910.)

Some have only a simple frame of color. Others, like the optically playful “Tumbling Blocks” (ca. 1880-1900), carry the design to the edge but change the background color of the last outside rows of blocks, creating an ersatz frame.

The newer designs delve firmly into the post-modern, eschewing the regular grid and border framing in favor of the less symmetrical and irregular, like Jill Straight’s “Rainbowlicious,” and more free-form designs as seen in Megan Patent-Nygren’s “Blades of Grass.”

Alexis Pappas, “Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte,” 2022, 37” x 30.” Longarm quilting by Haley Fetters

Imagery plays right up to the edge of the piece in contemporary art quilts. Examples are numerous, as in Susie Bonder’s “Damsel,” and K M Jarchow’s “O Prairie Girl.”

Pictorial quilts are also found more in the contemporary. From a floral abstraction, “Prairie Smoke” by Kimberly Doss-Bane to the stately portrait of “Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte,” by Alexis Pappas.

The accompanying display of quilts inspired by the concept of “Prairie,” by the OMQG artists, rewards with 10 smart examples of this art formerly known as craft. They range from the pictorial, as in Shannon Nelson’s “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” to the abstract, like Liz Thanel’s “Modern Prairie Points.”

Heather Akerberg, “Sunlight on a Camphor Tree (detail),” 2022, 20” x 17.” Domestic machine quilting.

Don’t miss Heather Akerberg’s “Sunlight on a Camphor Tree,” one of the most distinctive pieces in the show, and the smallest, measuring 18” x 21.” It stands out for its overlapping, green and yellow triangles of folded fabric, the anchoring hidden by each neighboring triangle, creating a mass of overlapping “leaves” that appear to catch dappled sunlight.

A point about the photographs in the catalogue. Details of stitching and embroidery are difficult to see in the photos. This is not a criticism — photographing and printing that level of detail is difficult, especially when reduced to a small image in a pamphlet. Guests are encouraged to seek the intricate stitching highlights and designs while viewing each quilt up close. The nuances of which are much more visible thanks to the angle of the gallery’s lighting.

Stitching is as important to the design as choice of fabric. Whether simply joining two pieces or adding complex patterns or imagery to a monochrome field, stitching can add texture and depth.

Janelle Vogler, “Geese Off Grid,” 2022, 78” x 58.” Longarm quilting

One intriguing stitching element can be found in the vintage and the contemporary — called trapunto — a method of adding various textures, designs, and optical effects, and employing different thicknesses of batting to create a bas-relief effect. Most, if not all, of the pieces show some application of trapunto, but one of the best examples can be found in the contemporary quilt by Janelle Vogler, “Geese Off Grid,” or in the vintage Amish offering, “Plain Quilt” — an extremely minimalist, primarily black quilt from an unidentified maker (ca. 1940.)

The word “quilt” has been used and reused in describing everything from music to interior design, from human communities to aggregations of farm fields. It fits as a noun, a verb and an adjective. This may be one of the best shows this year.

“Modern Quilting on the Prairie” runs through May 14. Check the gallery website for future talks or presentations. Further information can be discovered at gallery1516.org. For more information about the local chapter, go to omqg.blogspot.com. About the IQM, go to internationalquiltmuseum.org.

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