Not Your Grandmother's Quilt

After forming a relationship with legendary fine art quiltmaker Nancy Crow and hosting a solo exhibition of her work, Muskegon Museum of Art agreed to help develop and debut an invitational exhibition of colorful, circular abstractions that push the envelope of quiltmaking.

The large-scale works in Circular Abstractions: Bull’s Eye Quilts create an impressive visual display and will hang in the MMA’s L.C. and Margaret Walker Galleries through Nov. 6. From there, the exhibit will tour nationally, making stops in Ohio, Massachusetts and New York, with hopes for more. 

“The show was something Guest Curator Nancy Crow has wanted to do for many, many years,” said Art Martin, the newly appointed senior curator at the MMA. “She knew she wanted to do an exhibition of bull’s eye quilts, with all original work made exclusively for this show. She just needed a venue to pull it off.”

The MMA rose to the challenge to help coordinate the undertaking, including hauling the quilts to Chicago to be professionally photographed for the full-color exhibition catalog. 

Circular Abstractions features 51 quilts by an array of artists that improvise around the bull’s eye pattern: a four-quadrant design with a bull’s eye at the center of each quarter. The juried, invitational exhibit showcases some of the best machine-piecing and quilting being done today, as well as innovations around color, design and technique. Crow also likes to work large and wanted all the quilts at least 7 feet by 7 feet. 

“It really isn’t what people expect,” Martin said. “The chosen media is quiltmaking, but they are absolutely abstract, contemporary artwork. It’s an exploration and improvisation upon a nonrepresentational design. These are quilts being made in a much more fine art tradition.”

Crow is well-known in the world of quilting as an artist and teacher, but the exhibition is a new venture for her. Students from around the world visit her Ohio farm to participate in Crow Timber Frame Barn Art Retreats and workshops on quilting, fabric dyeing, composition, color design and more, all held in several restored barns. 

The new exhibit premiered in late August with 32 of the artists traveling at their own expense to West Michigan to see the quilts collectively assembled into a dazzling display of art and design. Participating artists hail from across the United States and abroad, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. 

“Every quilt in this case was made by someone who has been a student of hers at one time or another,” Martin said. “It was by personal invitation and the artists that replied ‘yes’ then went through quite a juried process. She reviewed their submissions and only accepted what she felt were the best.” 

Two West Michigan artists selected for inclusion, Monica Johnstone and Sue Cortese, said it was a real honor to receive an invitation from the MMA and Crow. 

Although all the artists were given the same prompt, the quilts are all uniquely different and impressive for their artistry and craftsmanship.

“I think it is really helping people to understand what this kind of medium can be,” Johnstone said. “They feel like it’s one they know, but they will discover a whole other side and it appeals to their sense of color and movement and excitement.” 

Johnstone, who lives in East Grand Rapids, has been sewing since age 5 and “got the bug for quilting as people often do.” She joined the West Michigan Quilters Guild after she moved to Michigan and took a workshop with Crow about five years ago at the MMA. 

She has since traveled to Crow’s farm in Ohio for other workshops. Johnstone’s “Roman Glass” quilt was inspired by her interest in Roman glass and ancient artifacts and features 4,400 individual pieces of fabric. She quilted it herself on her long-arm sewing machine.  

“It’s an enormous honor to be included in it,” she said. “It’s an amazing collection of works for this scale and a lot of men have reacted with the same sort of anecdotes. Men are quite surprised, ‘Wow this is really terrific, I didn’t expect to like this.’” 

Cortese also feels lucky to be included and agrees it’s a great display of pieces that are highly inventive in construction and dynamic, all with graphic and colorful designs. 

“As far as the show itself goes, people need to understand that these pieces are meant to be art, they aren’t meant to warm a bed,” said Cortese, who lives in Holland. “They’re not your traditional or grandmother’s quilt. 

"And the expert layout allows each quilt to play off each other, adding to the energy in the gallery.” 

Besides making quilts, Cortese teaches quilting and sells hand-dyed fabrics. She also serves as one of about 60 certified quilt judges for competitions. Her piece, “Evolution,” was inspired by a lot of personal change but also takes viewers through visual evolution as each quadrant changes from being very homogenous and orderly to chaotic and colorful. 

She hand dyed most of the fabrics herself, and she improvisationally assembled the quilt after cutting each piece by hand with a rotary cutter. She also quilted it on a long-arm machine.

“The other thing that is unique about these is they were all constructed in highly inventive ways,” Cortese said. “The seam lines don’t interfere with the overall impression or overall design of the quilt.”

It’s a unique show, one that everyone involved hopes will leave viewers with a new appreciation for the art of quiltmaking and the new techniques being used to push the limits of this timeless tradition. 

“It’s very powerful to walk into the gallery,” Cortese said. “It’s almost like they envelop you. Cloth is something we wear and use every day, but to see it in this fashion and have it be shown in this way is enriching to me. We all went in such diverse ways in developing our designs. It’s amazing how different we all took the same set of directions.” 


Circular Abstractions: Bull’s Eye Quilts 

Through Thursday, Nov. 6
Muskegon Museum of Art, 296 W. Webster Ave., (231) 720-2570