[Above: “My Pandemic Quilt” by Laurie Ceesay Landree in Pandemic: Life in Lockdown, a special exhibition at the Houston International Quilt Festival, 2020]
The Houston International Quilt Festival just closed at the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown. Since Tokyo permanently suspended its quilt festival after 2020, the Houston show is now the largest in the world, as well as the largest in the US. Founded in 1975 by Karey Bresenhan, President and CEO of Quilts, Inc., it draws over 55,000 visitors during its five-day run in late October. “Quilt International,” as it is affectionately called, is nothing short of a fabric extravaganza beckoning bus loads, plane loads, and car loads of quilting pilgrims, artists, collectors, instructors, and vendors from around the Country and all over the world. They come to see, to learn, to shop and to exhibit their work with pride.
A quilt is generally defined as a three-layer fabric sandwich of any size, shape or pattern, sewn by hand or machine. While quilts have traditionally been made for utilitarian purposes, they have evolved under the hands of talented, creative seamstresses (nearly always women) into prized works of artistic beauty and historical record, such as the famous Amish quilts made by Amish and Mennonite women around Lancaster, PA, or the Gee’s Bend quilts which are still a handwork tradition today in the African-American community of Gee’s Bend, AL.
Over time, especially in America, as the art of quilting gained interest, so too did the purposes for which they are made. There are records of quilts being used for messaging, hanging on fences to lead the way for fleeing slaves on the underground railroad, for example, or quilts with subtle signs alerting hobos as to which households were welcoming or hostile as they traveled the rails and asked for a handout during the Great Depression. In the last 50 years or so, we’ve seen the rise of socio-political messaging, in the form of the famous AIDS Memorial Quilt, or the commemorative 9/11 quilts, or the more-recent protest quilts that address racism and gun violence. Such work expands the very definition of a quilt in the public mind and moves it from bed cover to wall art to be displayed, discussed, collected and prized.
Most of us quilters began by making traditional bed quilts with traditional patterns, thereby learning the basic techniques of designing, piecing and machine quilting. We took classes, built our fabric stashes, acquired specialized tools, joined local guilds, and entered area quilt shows hoping to be awarded a ribbon — if not a blue one, at least an honorable mention (which is what my first quilt garnered). Then, in the 1990’s, a new movement captured our imaginations: the art quilt. For me, who had already decided that I was “a quilter who didn’t quilt” (because I didn’t own a longarm machine and so sent all my big quilts out to professionals to be quilted for me), the introduction to the art quilt came through a class at my local quilt shop on how to translate photographs into fabric art. My very first “art quilt” was from my own photo of the covered bridge in Cornwall, CT.
In 1989, California quilt artist Yvonne Porcella launched a new organization, the Studio Art Quilt Associates, Inc., whose mission was to promote the art quilt as a fine art medium. SAQA defines an art quilt as “a creative visual work that is layered and stitched or that references this form of stitched layered structure.” Now, over the last 30 years, it has grown into an active community of over 4,000 artists, curators, collectors, and art professionals around the world. Today, SAQA hosts major regional, national, and international juried exhibitions in galleries and cultural centers worldwide, provides publicity and promotion of the art quilt through its various publications, and serves as a resource for quilt artists as well as curators, dealers, consultants, teachers and collectors. Largely due to the promotional efforts of SAQA, art quilts are commissioned to hang in corporate headquarters and public spaces; they even — gasp! — hang in museums as part of permanent collections. As I have mentioned here before, I am a member of SAQA and proud to have had several of my art quilts accepted into SAQA exhibitions.
In the world of fiber arts today, there are traditional quilt displays, specialized exhibitions and juried shows, fabric art spin-offs of wearable art, and even 3-D creations. And then there is Houston Quilt International, where you will find it all in one gigantic place. The 2020 Houston show was cancelled due to Covid, but this year’s show went on as planned albeit under obviously reduced circumstances and with strict Covid protocols (mask mandates for everyone and enhanced sanitary conditions at the Convention Center). Even without the large numbers of international participants, there were still some 1200 quilts and pieces of textile art on display, including 29 special exhibitions, 500 vendor booths and 260 classes all spread over three full floors of the Convention Center.
As you may have inferred by now, the Houston International show is a big deal among quilt enthusiasts, so I was thrilled this summer to hear that one of my works, “Look to the Light,” had been juried into a special exhibit there called Tactile Architecture.™ (This is the quilt I spent most of last year working on and which I featured in this blog post on Nov. 25, 2020.) There were only 16 works displayed in this exhibit and I was told that it was quite an honor to have been accepted because of a record number of submissions. I guess everyone else had spent those long Covid months at home making art just as I had.
Anyway, leave it to the woman who has barely gone out of her house in almost two years to decide to make her debut back into the world at a potential super-spreader event — and I don’t even ride a motorcycle! Now I’m not going to be cavalier about how I made this decision because it was not without fear and anxiety, even up to the very last minute. Beyond the fact that I had already laid out the non-refundable fees for the show and hotel back in June, I still kept a wary eye on Covid case numbers and still fretted over the risks of attending up until the last minute. In the end, though, I decided that seeing my work displayed in Houston at Quilt International was worth the risk — one does have to sacrifice for art after all! But more importantly, this was the motivation I needed to push myself toward some sort of normalcy.
I am under no illusion that Covid is over and gone, but I have come to accept that we all must find reasonable ways to accommodate a recurring threat while reclaiming some of our lives. I have been vaccinated (with three shots, actually), I wear a mask everywhere all the time, I wash my hands incessantly, regularly disinfect my house, and am not in the habit of attending motorcycle rallies or events like them.
Yes, Houston was crowded, because it is a big city and the Astros were playing in the World Series, but thankfully, Quilt International was less crowded than I remember it being before the pandemic. You could actually see the exhibited quilts without crushing crowds, linger over them, photograph them, even chat with the artist if present. And the work seemed exceptionally stunning, inspiring and original, such as the Landree quilt pictured above, which is no doubt destined to become part of the record of our times.
I am so glad I made the trip to Houston, and feel so much more hopeful and more confident about moving forward now. How odd that an art work that sustained and comforted me through the long months of being shut in last year ultimately pushed me out of my comfort zone and back into my life this year. We both made our quilt debut in Houston together!