Ahead of the Curve

The Art Quilts of Judy B. Dales

Quilt artist Judy B. Dales is considered a pioneer in the world of contemporary art quilts. She is internationally acclaimed for her "innovative use of curves, abstract designs, sensitive layering of textures, and sophisticated pairings of soft, pastel fabrics."  Dales's art is represented in the White House Collection of American Crafts in Washington, D.C., and her quilt, Dancing on the Dark Side of the Moon, (1997) was exhibited in the International Quilt Festival's 100 Best Quilts of the 20th Century exhibition in Houston in 2000.  She has written several books about her quilts, as well as one on quilt designs and techniques. Works representing the last 18 years of Dales's career are currently in an exhibition at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, entitled Judy B. Dales: Ahead of the Curve.

Dales is most known for her work in free-form curved design, a technique she discovered in the mid-1980s and which she has since perfected.  Carolyn Bauer, Shelburne Museum assistant curator, describes Dales's process and distinct style: "Her pieced, curved quilts evolve instinctually…as she builds her canvas with fabric pairings based on color theory and attention to pattern and texture.  Her quilts, therefore, are not only artworks demonstrating high levels in technical difficulty, but also akin to paintings in their carefully composed expressions of color and form."

Explaining her technique and process, Dales said that the “magic” began for her when, after a decade of working in traditional geometric design, she discovered curves. "I  developed a system that allows my curvilinear drawing to be pieced, i.e. sewn together one piece to another, put together like a jigsaw puzzle.  This process is slow and requires patience, but it ensures that the finished design in fabric is an exact replica of the original drawing."  Although tedious at times, this part of the process can be almost meditative, whereas the drawing process "is very spontaneous and free."  She does a lot of drawing, which often begins as doodles--many done while listening to a sermon at church--"striving for an intuitive process that forms a direct connection between my subconscious and the pencil, bypassing the brain completely." She often amazes herself by the results.

Her techniques sets up limitations, as "the curves must be smooth enough to piece and the shapes simplified to a certain degree," and the lines and shapes in the finished piece must exactly replicate the original drawing, thus her work often requires strict discipline.  She uses commercially produced printed cotton fabric and occasionally hand-dyed or painted fabric, many from her 'stash' accumulated over 40 years of collecting. She feels that printed fabric is "diverse, beautiful and unique." She finds that pieces sometimes work together and sometimes contrast, creating tension. Many fabrics must be tried before the desired effect is achieved, creating a challenge that she says is what draws her to the medium of fabric. Dales does all her own quilting, using a 40 year-old sewing machine, harder now as she has developed neuromuscular problems.

Quilt styles featured in the exhibit range from representational to the abstract. Dales describes the creation of Dancing on the Dark Side of the Moon, (1997, 41" x 57") as being "magical from start to finish," as it was created seemingly without effort and finished remarkably quickly, in only four weeks. Womannessence (2000, 48" x 57") is part of Dales' s Fantasy Form series. She describes it as having spiritual overtones and embodying the essence of intense, female energy."  Night Sky (2000, 39" x 24") made use of silvery fabric that had long been in her stash, finally a perfect choice to interact with black prints and solids to convey the mood of a twinkling, dazzling summer night sky. Garden Pearls (2012, 24" x 36") depicts a "romanticized version" of what Dales wishes her garden was like, flourishing with no help from herself, with "precious gems hidden among the perfect foliage."

Dales gives many of her pieces musical titles as she feels music and art are connected. Dream a Little Dream (2013, 22" x 28") is named after one of her favorite songs, by Mama Cass. She feels that background areas in quilts are important as they set the tone for the entire design. In this piece the background is especially important as it takes up the majority of the space.

Recently Dales has been working on a series she calls Three,  Three (2012, 25" x 35") being the first piece in it. The main shapes, repeated 3 times, seem to resemble a female figure. The simplicity of the overall design and the sharp contrast between them and the background she feels makes "a bold statement." Lunar Reflections (2015, 36" x 27") is also part of the Three series, with 3 moons separated by rolling waves. Dales feels her choice of elegant fabrics and subtle colors achieves the piece's sense of overall serenity. Enchanted Forest (2015, 33" x 30.5") also uses multiples of three. Dales originally envisioned this piece quite differently, but her intuition led her elsewhere, as is often the case with her work, and the results were not as originally planned, amazing even herself.

In addition to being fascinated with round forms, Dales claims she is "obsessed with the moon." She enjoys and is amazed by its travels and used soft, slivery colors in Moon Dreams (2008, 36" x 35"), attempting to echo the moon's dream-like effect on a snow-covered landscape. And last but not least, Dales describes Mother (2005, 36" x 35"), with its "gentle, fluid shapes and soft colors" as having "qualities associated with motherhood: warmth, protectiveness, and tenderness...I was fortunate to have a wonderful mother and this piece is a tribute to her."

Judy B. Dales: Ahead of the Curve is on view at the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont through October 31, 2015. For more information about the artist, please visit www.judydales.com.

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