By Kelly M. Smith
Okay, give me just a moment while I reminisce. The first really big quilt show I ever attended was the American Quilter’s Society (AQS) show in Paducah, Kentucky, the year Zena Thorpe won Best of Show for her quilt Kells: Magnum Opus. Being a total Celtic appliqué-ophile, I was blown away by that quilt and by the sheer scope of the show in general. I had never seen so many amazingly gorgeous things in my life! Attending that show and being fully immersed into a the world of quilting is part of what encouraged me to keep going with my fledgling quilting hobby. I’ve come a long way since then, from the newbie who didn’t even know what most of the items for sale in the vendor booths were for!
And last week I attended another AQS show, but this time in my former hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Not only did I used to live there, but I was also a former member of the West Michigan Quilters’ Guild, which campaigned for years to get the AQS to come to the city. Big excitement! As soon as I found out AQS was actually headed to Grand Rapids, I knew I had to go back so I could see old friends, and yes, walk the show. (True confession: The show itself was almost secondary to my desire to reunite with people I hadn’t seen in two years.) And I was delighted when Generation Q invited me to do a little casual reporting on the show.
Now, the American Quilters Society is not known for being a hotbed of modern quilts. When I hear “AQS,” I think of formal, traditional quilts, exquisitely pieced and meticulously quilted. And those are beautiful and have their place, but after awhile, they do all start to look the same to me. Variety is seeping into the AQS menu, however, and this year two contemporary quilts won prizes at the Grand Rapids show.
Organic Log Cabin #4 by Jennifer Emry of Arlington, Virginia, took first place for hand-quilted wall quilts. This striking four-patch log cabin combines bright orange with vibrant blues to achieve a look reminiscent of the Gee’s Bend quilts. Forget right angles or symmetry–this quilt is all over the place in piecing. It features plaids, stripes, dots and wonky proportions, and would look right at home in any décor where the owner appreciated whimsy. The hand-quilted concentric circles resemble drops of water splashing in a pond and add to the asymmetry of the blocks by providing an illusion of movement. The pieced border adds an extra touch of fancy, with the blue strips appearing to float in the juicy orange. This quilt makes great use of complimentary secondary colors.
Joie De Vivre by Beth Markel of Rochester Hills, Michigan, is a delightful fabricky mish-mash. Pieced together willy-nilly, the colors jumble against each other in intricate confusion. Markel’s quilt took second place for machine-quilted wall quilts. Combining solids and a few prints, Markel pieced patches of all sizes to achieve a quilt that kind of seems like a vibrant city, viewed from above.
Although they were not winners, three other quilts with modern sensibilities caught my eye.
Curves of Color by Charlotte Noll of Lauderhill, Florida, combined fun swirls of color with soft grays, simple machine quilting, and raw-edge appliqué. The jewel tones pop and the curves lead the eye around the quilt.
Boggy Froggy by Nancy B. Hutchison of Kennesaw, Georgia, provided a fun, asymmetrical take on a traditional Log Cabin with wonky blocks set on point in a white and yellow background. The machine-quilted wall quilt was part of a challenge to use only five colors and features shocks of bright pink among the boggy hues. The ornate machine quilting provides an unexpected counterpoint to the seeming haphazard piecing of the blocks.
Yellow Brick Road by Marcia DeCamp of Palmyra, New York, combines purples and yellows (two of my favorite colors!) in a maze-like machine-quilted wall quilt. It’s difficult to see where one block ends and another begins, because they all butt up against each other in random profusion. Like Organic Log Cabin #4, this quilt also uses secondary complements to great effect, combining bright yellow with lavender and royal purple.
Another big highlight of the show was the Egyptian tentmaker’s exhibit. (You can read the back story here. ) When I first heard about it, I was like, “Tentmakers? What does that have to do with quilting?” Well the “tents” are actually white canvas panels that are covered with a whole piece of remarkable Egyptian cotton that feels just like silk in your hand, and then quilted all over with elaborate appliqué designs. The panels are used in Egypt as backdrops at parties, funerals and other events to screen off unsightly views or create privacy. The tentmakers themselves are practicing an art that goes back at least to Biblical times. (According to Acts 18:3, St. Paul was a tent-maker, and therefore a quilter!)
The quilted panels and the men who sew them are actually denigrated in their own country, the quilts being considered the work of peasant laborers, unfit to hang in a home. (Crazy, huh?) However, the tentmakers are finding an international audience with the help of Jenny Bowker, quilter and wife of the former Australian ambassador to Egypt. With her help, the tentmakers are showing and selling their quilts all around the world. Jenny and the tentmakers will be at the next AQS show in Des Moines, Iowa, in October. Definitely check it out if you can!
While the quilty competition was showing signs of modern influence, it was a different story on the vending floor. Of about 155 vendors, only two seemed to cater specifically to modern sensibilities. Modern Quilt Studio, owned by Weeks Ringle and Bill Kerr and Janie Lou Quilts both featured light, contemporary fabrics and simply pieced quilts and both booths seemed to be full of customers. Weeks and Bill are known for their fun, improvisational quilts. Janie Lou was a new find for me, but her booth was lovely and open, with pretty and fun quilts on display. You can find kits and patterns on her website.
While the AQS probably has a long way to go to appeal to a majority of modern quilters, it does seem open to more experimental, less conventional quilts. It’s a breath of fresh air and I hope the breeze keeps blowing.
Kelly M. Smith is the author of Open Your Heart with Quilting (Dreamtime, 2008), an inspirational “why to” for new and experienced quilters. In 2010 Kelly became Senior Editor of Quilters Newsletter magazine. Kelly currently works as a technical writer and lives with her husband near Golden, Colorado. Visit her website at www.redheadedquilter.com for more information on her books, quilts, and writing.