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Midwest mosaic

A new Nebraska museum showcases the art and romance of quilts.

June 01, 2008|Jay Jones | Special to The Times

LINCOLN, NEB. — Eleanor Gillette was already an avid artist -- an oil painter -- when her grandmother introduced her to quilting more than 30 years ago. "I looked at it as an opportunity to 'paint' with fabrics," she says of the day when she pushed her first needle through the three layers that, when stitched together, define a quilt.

Gillette has made hundreds of them. To her, they are not merely covers for a bed; they are art. "You feel the fabric, you move the fabric, you put it together," says the retired elementary school principal from Lincoln. "It's an emotional connection."

More than 20 million Americans call themselves active quilters. Now their craft is being recognized -- for its art and its history -- at a new museum just a few miles from Gillette's home.

Since its opening in March, the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has attracted visitors from across the U.S. and several foreign countries. Art lovers and history buffs are joining quilters, and all are finding plenty to interest them.

"Quilting has seen an astonishing revival, and the surge of interest continues," says Patricia Crews, director of the Quilt House, as the museum is known around Lincoln.

"There is a romance about quilts," adds Crews, a textiles professor and a quilt history scholar. "They are an iconic example of an American folk art tradition that remains celebrated today."

That tradition now has a home, fittingly, on the vast prairies of Nebraska.

As pioneers pushed westward, their covered wagons carried not only family members but all of their belongings too. They packed cookware, clothing and, of course, rifles. More often than not, there was also a quilt, one of their prized possessions.

"Many, many quilts were taken West as a treasured remembrance of family members and friends," Crews says. "There were a number of quilts that were made specifically to give to loved ones who were heading West, people whom they might never see again."

Many women continued quilt making on the prairie. "These were not quilts that were hastily assembled because they were in desperate need of warm bedding," Crews says. "This was an opportunity to express themselves. . . . It was a pastime that helped them escape into a world of color and a world of beauty."

That beauty, as well as the unique history of quilting, is evident as visitors stroll through the galleries of the Quilt House. Upon entering, visitors are struck by the intensity of "Bias Cut," a contemporary quilt by artist Michael James, who -- like Gillette -- progressed from painting to quilting.

James uses the traditional Log Cabin pattern, but his finished work isn't anything like those made by the pioneer women in the 1800s. His quilt uses boldly colored strips of fabric to create a stunningly complex geometric design.

In an adjoining gallery hangs a quilt that's equally striking but for different reasons. The "Reconciliation Quilt" tells of the life of one woman in New York City just after the Civil War. Lucinda Ward Honstain's pictorial quilt, which she made in 1867, contains 40 panels, each of which illustrates facets of her life. One shows an oversized black man looming over a much smaller white man and speaking the words, "Master, I Am Free." In the center of the quilt -- taking up three panels -- is a depiction of Honstain's red-brick home in Brooklyn, with a yard full of farm animals.

Crews says such quilts as Honstain's piece are called "story quilts."

"We know that quilts are one of the richest manifestations of material culture, in terms of informing us about women's lives, about families' lives, about the adoption of technology, and to gain glimpses into the lives of ordinary people, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries," she says. "There's been expanded interest as people have understood how much we can learn from material culture."

The International Quilt Study Center & Museum has more than 2,300 quilts in its collection. The oldest is an embroidered bedcover from Britain dating to the early 1700s.

"We are actively looking for quilt-making traditions from around the world," says Maureen Ose, the center's communications coordinator. "We have 24 countries now, but we know there are other quilt-making traditions out there that we need to bring in to this collection to round it out."

Only about 50 quilts are on display at any time. But that doesn't mean the others aren't accessible. Each quilt has been cataloged and photographed for inclusion in the Virtual Gallery. Visitors to Lincoln can search the database by name, style and period. Guests can even use the technology to create their own designs. The Virtual Gallery is expected to go online on July 1.

Gillette is delighted that so many quilts are assembled in one location, from which their rich art and history can be shared with the world.

"It's quite a treasure to have this in Lincoln," she says.

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IF YOU GO

International Quilt Study Center & Museum, (402) 472-6549, www.quiltstudy.org, is at 1523 N. 33rd St., Lincoln. It's open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and 1 to 4:30 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students and children.

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