Saturday, February 1, 2014

Stitches and Patches Now and Then

Rania Hassan, Pensive I, II, III, 2009, oil, fiber, canvas, metal wood,  Each piece
is 31"h x 12"w x 2-1/2"  It's currently on view at Greater Reston Arts Center.

There's a revival of status and attention given to traditional, highly-skilled arts and crafts made of yarn, thread and materials. "Stitch," a new show at Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE), proves that traditional sewing arts are at the forefront of contemporary art, and that fiber is a forceful vehicle for expression.  Meanwhile, the National Museum of Women in the Arts puts the historical spin on traditional women's art in "Workt by Hand," a collection of stunning quilts from the Brooklyn Museum which were shown in exhibition at their home museum last year.

Bars Quilt, ca. 1890, Pennsylvania; Cotton and wool, 83 x 82";
Brooklyn Museum,

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. Peter Findlay, 77.122.3;
Photography by Gavin Ashworth,

2012 / Brooklyn Museum

Quilts are normally very large and utilitarian in nature.  To some historians, American quilts are appreciated as material culture with possible stories of the people who made them, but they also have some vivid abstract patterns and strong color harmonies.  Their bold geometric shapes vary and change with different color combinations.  Quilting is a folk art since it is a passed down tradition, and the patterns may seem stylized and highly decorative. Yet there is room for tremendous variation, creativity and individual style.   

Within the United States there are important regional folk groups whose quilts have a distinctive style, like the Amish quilt, above.   Amish designs can have a sophisticated abstraction deeply appreciated during the period of Minimal Art of the 1960s and 1970s.   The exhibition outlines distinctions and also shows styles popular at certain times, including Mariners' Knot quilts around 1840-1860, the Crazy Quilts of the Victorian period and the Double Wedding Ring pattern popular in the Midwest after World War I.

Victoria Royall Broadhead, Tumbling Blocks quilt--detail, 1865-70 Gift of  Mrs Richard Draper, Brooklyn Museum of Art.  Photo by Gavin Ashworth/Brooklyn Museum.  This silk/velvet creation won first place in contests at state fairs in St. Louis and Kansas City.

One beautifully patterned quilt is from Sweden, but the rest of them are made in the USA.  The patterns change like an optical illusions when we move near to far, or when we view in real life or in reproduction.  There's the Maltese Cross pattern, Star of Bethlehem pattern, Log Cabin pattern, Basket pattern and Flying Geese pattern, to name a few. The same patterns can come out looking very differently, depending on the maker.  An Album Quilt has the signatures of different people who worked on different squares. We know the names of a handful of the quilting artists.
Orly Cogan, Sexy Beast, Hand stitched embroidery
and paint on vintage table cloth, 34" x 34"

While most of the quilts featured in the exhibition were made by anonymous artists, the Reston exhibition includes well-known national  figures in fiber art, such as Orly Cogan and Nathan Vincent.   Cogan uses traditional techniques on vintage fabrics to explore contemporary femininity and relationships.  Her works appear to be large-scale drawings in thread. She adds paint and sews into old tablecloths. I loved the beautiful Butterfly Song Diptich and Sexy Beast, a human-beast combination with multiple arms, like the god Shiva.  Vincent, the only man in the show, works against the traditional gender role, crocheting objects of typically masculine themes, such as a slingshot.
Pam Rogers, Herbarium Study, 2013, Sewn leaves, handmade
soil and mineral pigments, graphite, 

on cotton paper, 22" x 13-1/2"

Most "Stitch" artists are local.  Pam Rogers stitches the themes of people, place, nature and myth found in her other works.  Kate Kretz, another local luminary of fiber art, embroiders in intricate detail, expressing feelings about motherhood, aging and even the art world.

 Kretz's own blog illuminates her work, including many of the pieces in "Stitch.  The pictures there and the detailed photos on an embroidery blog display in sharper detail and explain some of her working methods.

Often she embroiders human hair into the designs and materials, connecting tangible bits of a self with an audience. Kretz explains, "One of the functions of art is to strip us bare, reminding us of the fragility common to every human being across continents and centuries."

Kretz adds, "The objects that I make are an attempt to articulate this feeling of vulnerability."  Yet some of the works also make us laugh and chuckle, like Hag, a circle of gray hair, Unruly, and Une Femme d'Un Certain Age.   Watch out for a dagger embroidered from those gray hairs!
Kate Kretz,  Beauty of Your Breathing, 2013,  Mothers hair from gestation
period embroidered on child's garment, velvet, 20" x 25" x 1"

Suzi Fox, Organ II, 2014, Recycled
motor wire, canvas, embroidery hoop

12-1/2" x 8" x  1-1/2"
Kretz is certainly not the only artist who punches us with wit and irony, and/or human hair, into the seemingly delicate stitches. Stephanie Booth combines real hair fibers with photography, and her works relate well to the family history aspect alluded to in NMWA's quilting exhibition.  Rania Hassan is also a multimedia artist who brings together canvas paintings with knitted works.  In Dream Catcher and the Pensive series of three, shown at top of this page, she alludes to the fact that knitting is a pensive, meditative act.  She painted her own hands on canvases of Pensive I, II, III and Ktog, using the knitted parts to pull together the various parts of three-dimensional, sculptural constructions.  She adds wire to the threads for stiffness, although the wires are indiscernible.  Suzi Fox uses wire, also, but for delicate, three-dimensional embroideries of hearts, lungs and ribcages (right).

There's an inside to all of us and an outside.  Erin Edicott Sheldon reminds us that stitches are sutures, and she calls her works sutras.  Stitches heal our wounds.  "I use contemporary embroidery on antique fabric as a canvas to explore the common threads that bind countless generations of women."   Her "Healing Sutras" have a meditative quality, recalling the ancient Indian sutras, the threads that hold  all things together.

Erin Endicott Sheldon, Healing Sutra#26,  2012, hand
embroidery on antique fabric stained with walnut ink
In this way she relates who work to the many unknown artists who participated in a traditional arts of quilting.  Like the Star of Bethlehem quilt now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the  traditional "Stitch" arts remind us to follow our stars while staying grounded in our traditions.
Star of Bethlehem Quilt, 1830, Brooklyn Museum of Art   Gift of Alice Bauer Frankenberg.  Photo by Gavin Ashworth/Brooklyn Museum


  1. Washington Post has a great review of Stitch alone. A well thought out show:

  2. There is another exhibition of quilts of the Underground Railroad on view at the NVCC campus in Manassas, VA:

  3. GRACE is having an educational program for adults on artists I've focused on my classes. First one is on March 3rd. One on Mary Cassatt, another on Wyeth. On March 3 its about Henri Matisse:


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