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Uncommon threads: Quilt National returns to St. Charles with more innovations in fiber art

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2009 - The quilt sits in the quiet gallery, left foot crossed over right, with pink and orange flowers painted over bare bones.

That's right -- the quilt sits. And it has bones.

"Pretty much anything goes," says Kathleen Dawson, director of Quilt National.

And this year, that anything includes a quilted skeleton.

Every two years, the Dairy Barn Arts Center in Athens, Ohio, displays between 80 and 85 quilts in the juried Quilt National.

And since 1988, Quilt National has been traveling to St. Louis with works of fiber art, first at several spots in the city, and now at the Foundry Art Centre in St. Charles. This year, the 16th Quilt National begins Fri., Sept. 25 and runs through Thurs., Oct. 29. Proceeds from Quilt National benefit Safe Connections, a local domestic violence/sexual assault counseling service.

"Quilt National is kind of the holy grail," says fiber artist Pam RuBert of Springfield, Mo. "It's the top of the heap as far as art quilts go."

Getting from Athens to St. Louis, from old-timey quilts to quilted skeletons and quilts made of tea bags and tiny flags, isn't a straight stitch, of course.

But like the quilts now waiting at the Foundry, how Quilt National began, and how it ended up in St. Louis, took a lot of people, a lot of innovation and a lot of thread to link them.


There's an old barn in Athens, Ohio. And much like the plastic skeleton that's now quilted and sitting in the Foundry, it began life as one thing but soon became another.

Built in 1914, the old barn was part of a complex of the Ohio mental-health system. The buildings fell out of use, eventually, and most were torn down. But in 1978, artists in Athens thought the barn could be used again and proposed it be made into an arts center.

That was approved, but the new art center had to have a major exhibition within a year, says Dawson.

Around the same time, a group of artists in Athens couldn't quite find their place. The women were making quilts.

"But they weren't what people considered traditional quilts," Dawson says.

And that meant that traditional quilters wouldn't let them into those shows. The women didn't really have a spot in other more traditional art shows, either.

So when they got involved with the new Dairy Barn Art Center, and when they found out they needed a show, women such as Nancy Crow, Francoise Barnes and Virginia Randles helped organize the first ever Quilt National in 1979.

That year, 390 quilts were submitted for the juried show. Thirty years later, this year's show drew in more than 1,000 entries from 25 states and 13 foreign countries. Eighty-five are on display in the show.

St. Louis is the only city to have nearly the entire Quilt National come through. After a stop here, the show will be broken into pieces and travel around the country.


In St. Louis, the relationship between Quilt National and Safe Connections goes back to the first show, which was brought here in 1988. Safe Connections, then called Women's Self Help Center, had a board of directors and a board for fundraising who learned about Quilt National. The first show, like every one since, was a fundraiser for the counseling service.

And like the quilted covering on that skeleton, Deb Cottin thinks it's a good fit.

People like the concept that quilting, which is historically a women's art, is being used to support women's services, says Cottin, director of development and marketing.

"Strength from strength," she says. "It's meaningful to us that the history of the art form is about women coming together, bonding."

Attendance at Quilt National tends to be about 5,000 people, and the event brings in about $100,000 for Safe Connections, though most of that money comes through individual sponsorship of the show, Cottin says.

And this year, like many non-profits, it's money that's needed.

Cottin says she's seen an increase in calls to the hotline, and more women are on the waiting list to see counselors than in past years.

In the first eight months of 2007, the hotline received 4,834 calls. In the first eight months of 2008, the number rose to 5,075, and in the first eight months of 2009, to 5,626.

Cottin thinks that's due in part to the economy. Those women feel they can't leave a bad situation now, she says, and they can't get jobs, so they feel trapped.

"This event this year is more critical than ever," she says.


The quilted skeleton, by Susan Else of Santa Cruz, Calif., is a mixture of conflicting ideas, according to the artist's statement in the Quilt National 2009 guide book.

"The universe is an odd and wonderful melange," she says.

It's odd and wonderful, too, in the works and worlds of Pam RuBert, who was born in St. Louis and now lives in Springfield, Mo. Her piece in this year's show is called "Paris -- Wish You Were Hair." And unlike many of the pieces in the show, which are painterly or abstract, RuBert's entry is like a cartoonish postcard from far away places. 

"I've always known how to sew," she says, but early on, it was just costumes and fun stuff. RuBert's grandmother made quilts, "but I never really thought about it as an art form."

Then, six or seven years ago, she began creating her own art quilts, drawing from her background as an illustrator to capture humor and broadcast it on a quilt.

This is RuBert's third piece in Quilt National. "It's really an impressive show," she says.

The other artists included in the show take as many different avenues to arrive at a finished product as she does. They dye and paint fabric, they construct a piece around a skeleton or create cities or use photography. The quilts tell stories of fading memory, animal extinction and global warming.

And sometimes, they're simply bright and big and beautiful.

For Cottin, the impact is strong -- seeing 85 works of fiber art that are larger than what you might see at a typical art show.

But this, it's clear, is no typical show.

There is one guideline, though. Entires must "possess the basic structural characteristics of a quilt," according to the Dairy Barn's website.

And after that, RuBert says, "it's as wild as you want to go."

Follow that thread

Innovations in Textiles 8 runs now through November, thanks to the Craft Alliance, and includes more than 20 non-profits and art galleries all over the metro area. Innovations Weekend begins Fri., Sept. 25 and includes talks and a thread performance. A gallery bus is scheduled for Sat., Oct. 3.