One hundred and ten little dresses placed directly onto the wall in the format of quilt block and in the size and shape of a double bed quilt. ... Is this a contemporary quilt?

'Dressed in Memories' by Michele Eastwood, Photograph by Victor France
'Dressed in Memories' by Michele
Eastwood, Photograph by
Victor France

This delightful collection of brightly coloured, individually made, dress shapes, was my favourite art quilt at the Stitched + Bound exhibition I visited in spring 2001 while teaching in Perth. This was the fourth in a series of biennial, juried, contemporary quilt exhibitions sponsored by the WAQA (Western Australian Quilters' Association). It was set up to encourage the exploration and innovation of the quilt form.

Dressed in Memories, created by Michelle Eastwood, certainly fulfilled the aims of the association! In the artists own words she says, "Dressed in Memories was an exploration of ideas behind some aspects of quilt making. I looked at quilts that had been pieced together by women in the past using remnants of fabric from old dresses or left over scraps from sewing projects. I enjoyed this aspect of women reusing fabric and the memories that pieces of material could evoke. I decided to turn these ideas around to make a contemporary wall piece that still evoked a quilt." Michelle's piece certainly achieved this, even though there was no sashing or piecing involved.

By the sheer definition of the word contemporary - as defined by the Concise English Dictionary as "modern in style or design" - Stitched + Bound was just that. As a collection of thirteen distinctively different art quilts, (or perhaps I would call them textile artworks), they each went in some way to breaking down the entrenched hierarchical ideas of what a quilt should be.

'Earth Wrap' by Marianne Penberthy (detail), Photograph by Ashley de Prazer
'Earth Wrap' by Marianne Penberthy
(detail), Photograph by
Ashley de Prazer

As Holly Story states in her essay from the catalogue that accompanied this exhibition, "the conceptual approach is arguably the hallmark of contemporary art practice across all disciplines". So the idea, or concept behind the quilt is, in part, what makes it a contemporary art quilt.

Several of the artists in the exhibition incorporated text or language in their work and literally told their story, a trend that also pervades contemporary paintings at the moment. The words, "The colour bleeds around me, staining all it touches" breathed meaning into Sarah Pondevies Anxiety in Rust diptych. Created by felting hand dyed wool yarn and using hand and machine embroidery, the piece is, in the artists own words, "an exploration of the comfort factor of emotionally destructive situations, and how these patterns are passed through the generations." This was a powerful piece with gloriously saturated, burnt orange colours.

In Marianne Penberthys Earth Wrap, she too used text to work through her sad memories. She came to terms with the loss of a parent in her childhood years through the process of creating this healing piece. This work was double sided, with a lattice made of silk and gauze. It reminded me of ancient parchments with secret messages written on them.

'New Directions' by Alison Schwabe (detail), Photograph by Sarah Pondevie
'New Directions' by Alison
Schwabe (detail), Photograph
by Sarah Pondevie

From absorbing these three quite challenging pieces, I was almost relieved to see two works that were easily recognisable in form as a quilt. In the absence of text, Alison Schwabes New Directions told a story of relocation. As the trailing spouse of a geologist, Alison has experienced first hand the effects of living in many different places. In her own words she says, "This quilt is the story of my life - one turn after another - which I survive because I always determine to make the most of where I am at the time: difficult as it is sometimes." (Alison is currently in Uruguay, South America). "Each turning point opens up new opportunities, with new directions". The interaction of lines, going in different directions, which are stopped as the block is cut, gave this art quilt a feeling of movement, even chaos.

Margery Goodalls piece Weave #3 - The Running Stitch was a wonderful play with pattern. Her use of both bright and subdued colours and her clever way of piecing to create lines that looked like stitches, gave the piece an energy that reflects Margerys lifestyle. Created from the tiniest pieces of cotton, cotton blends, silk & lamé blend fabrics gave it a tantalising texture.

'Anxiety in Rust' by Sarah Pondevie (detail), Photograph by Emma Goodall
'Anxiety in Rust' by Sarah Pondevie
(detail), Photograph by
Emma Goodall

There were other works by renowned quilt artists in this exhibition such as Wendy Luggs Patch Work, a diptych from her series honouring the honest beauty of old textiles, Lois Ives Raked Silk and Janie Matthews Feather Quilt to name a few. Plus there were other makers who normally work outside the quilt form and who saw this exhibition as a chance to experiment. This innovation gave an overall feeling to the exhibition, similar to that one experiences when visiting a contemporary art gallery.

So, what is a contemporary art quilt? Is it a quilt that is modern in style and design? The quilts in Stitched + Bound have gone some way in showing us the answer. By intent, the goal of the organisers was achieved . . . a contemporary quilt exhibition that explored the quilt form in many innovative ways.

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 10 Number 4 - April 2002