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Bold by Design: Art Quilts from the Collection of Jack Walsh

Bold by Design: Art Quilts from the Collection of Jack Walsh

In the 1960s a new type of quilt began to emerge. Artists used fabric, thread, and often unconventional materials to treat quilt surfaces much like a painter does a canvas. Made as art to be hung on the wall and engage the viewer in a visual experience, these quilts were unapologetically nonutilitarian. Over the past thirty years, solo and group exhibitions of art quilts have proliferated. The vibrant art quilts in Bold by Design are from the collection of John M. Walsh III, Class of 1958. Jack’s collection is widely known for its quality and range, composed of quilts created by many of the best artists in the field. The abstract quilts on view in this gallery are a small subset of Jack’s collection, chosen for their bold design and inventive use of color. The Johnson Museum is grateful to Jack for lending these stellar quilts to the exhibition, which is complemented by adjacent gallery displays from the Museum’s collection of midcentury prints and paintings that share a visual kinship with the art quilts and a selection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American quilts.

The term “art quilt” was used by Michael Kile and Penny McMorris in 1986 when they organized the influential traveling exhibition of the same name. The Art Quilt was the first exhibition of its kind, showcasing the work of sixteen exceptional artists, among them Nancy Crow, Michael James, and Pamela Studstill, whose quilts are also on view here. Experimentation, innovation, and a reconsideration of the quilt as an expressive art form were the hallmarks of these artists/quilt makers. As Jean Ray Laury, a prominent early quilt artist, wrote, “Modern designers of quilts are not concerned with reiterating statements made years ago. They have their own comments to make, which are relevant to our own times.”

Most of the artists whose work is featured in this exhibition have formal art training. They chose this medium because they are drawn to the creative possibilities and tactile qualities of fabric. Several of the artists are seminal figures in the art quilt movement. Crow, James, Studstill, and Anna Williams have reimagined the geometric pieced quilt in unique and compelling ways. Katherine Knauf, Heidi Stoll-Weber, and Ardyth Davis dye or print their own fabrics, and Studstill paints directly on the quilt. Joy Saville, Carol Gersen Hemphill, and Carol Schepps create dynamic optical effects. Beyond formal concerns, many of the artists express deep personal feelings and life experiences in their quilts. Crow writes that her quilts are about “complexity, sadness, and hope.”

When art quilts moved from the bed to the wall, associations with the body remained. More collage than fabric sandwich—the traditional notion of a quilt—these works of art fashioned in cloth are still connected in our minds to basic human needs and acts. This enduring corporeal connection enhances their power to captivate and move us. 

Cathy Rosa Klimaszewski
Associate Director and the Harriet Ames Charitable Trust Curator of Education