Structure and Improvisation

Contemporary quilts as art

Quilts, originally made as decorative but functional household items, have been widely accepted as art for the past three decades.  In 1971 a landmark exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City, "Abstract Design in American Quilts", featured antique and vintage quilts, many of them Amish, established quilts as an art form. What had before been viewed as "just" craft or folk art was now being applauded for its exceptionally strong color and design sense and being compared by a sophisticated art audience to twentieth century master artists such as Paul Klee, Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian.  Then in 2002 an exhibition entitled "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and later at the Whitney. The geometrically simple, but sophisticated quilts from a small African American community in Alabama were also hailed as masterpieces of modern art and received international acclaim.

In more recent years the status of the quilt has gone a step further with the blossoming of the art quilt movement, in which quilts are created specifically to be appreciated as works of art."Structure and Improvisation: Contemporary Quilts of Nancy Crow, Rosalie Dace, Michael James and Paula Nadelstern," an exhibition currently at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Caspar, Wyoming, highlights and explores the expanded boundaries of contemporary quilt making and presents the work of four renowned quilters whose work is in the forefront of today's art quilt movement.

Traditionally quilts worked with patches and blocks and functioned as decorative bed covers. Today art quilters are influenced by contemporary society and how we see and process information visually, and they explore both communal and highly personal themes.  The work in the show represents some of the exhilarating ways that the contemporary art quilt movement has flourished.  All exist specifically to be accessed and appreciated as artistic creations. In addition to the quilts on view, each quilter proffered items from their studios, so that viewers could see the source of their inspirations, but also understand the quite different and creative process of each artist.
Trained first as a weaver, Nancy Crow has worked in weaving and quilts for decades and in her early days reconfigured historical quilt patterns. She now works in an entirely improvisational fashion, cutting fabric freehand without need of sketches or templates. Her most recent work is pure shape, line and proportion; she also has a particular expertise in color. She hand dyes the fabrics and works in series.

South African quilter Rosalie Dace has been described as a cultural anthropologist whose work defines the collective human experience.  Her work is emotional and highly subjective, reflecting feelings of place and referring to memories and personal experiences, telling stories with which we can all identify.  One quilt, an homage to her deceased father, a gardener, evokes the colors and shapes of his favorite environment, another of a local market. Another, recalling Ms. Dace's excitement in returning home to South Africa, depicts an aerial view of the ocean over which she flew. She uses a variety of fabrics upon which to work, such as silk, African cloth and burlap. At times she decorates her quilts with beads, buttons, string, safety pins and other embellishments traditional to South African clothing and textiles.

Originally trained as a painter, Michael James now uses technology to articulate his artistic vision in creating his quilts. He first captures found visual forms photographically. These digital images are then manipulated in design software and printed on fabric. James uses this very contemporary method to fabricate all his own materials. For him, pattern is a metaphor for the order implicit in complex systems. Manipulating and altering pattern leads to disorder, the unexpected and unpredictable, and it is this tension between order and disorder that is a constant theme in his work.

Paula Nadelstern lives and works in New York City and makes quilts on the same block in the Bronx where she grew up.  She uses thousands of tiny fabric slivers for her quilts and the intricate results appear dizzyingly complex.  A quilt can take her anywhere from three to eighteen months to complete. When asked how long it took her to make a quilt, she says, "my whole life, because I bring to every new quilt everything I've ever learned.  I couldn't make the quilt I'm about to start a few years back; I didn't have the expertise I have now. When you work in a series, the questions you ask yourself get more complicated but the answers get simpler."   Her signature style is her use of symmetry alternating with a deliberate asymmetry.  The innovation of the Kaleidoscope quilt is uniquely hers, and she continues to explore that idea/form. She loves the "surprise and magic, change and chance" that kaleidoscope patterns promise, how they explode with light and color, form and motion. Snowflakes, crystalline forms and other geometries from nature also inspire her. Ms. Nadelstern's quilts have been exhibited nationally and internationally and she travels extensively, teaching kaleidoscopic quiltmaking techniques and design that are also explored in her books.  In 2009 the American Folk Art Museum in New York presented a major survey of her work, the first time the museum devoted a show to a single quiltmaker.  That exhibit will open in June at the Akron Art Museum in Ohio and will also travel to Emerson College in Boston in 2012. 

Contemporary Quilts of Nancy Crow, Rosalie Dace, Michael James and Paula Nadelstern at Nicolaysen Art Museum, Caspar, Wyoming will run through May 1, 2011;  for more information, please visit



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