| Lifestyle | Cozy canvas
  ozarks lifestyle Published Thursday, February 3, 2005  
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Cozy canvas

Is it art or a quilt? Quilting has taken off among artists and has proven to be an exciting new medium.

By Sony Hocklander

"Gregory the Groovy Grouper (Alas, no Bass)" by Merrilee Teiche (vignette)

"Something New Will Grow" by Emmie Seaman (vignette)

"Mysterious Migration of Miscellaneous Objects" by Pam RuBert (vignette)

Lettie Blackburn, a new member of Uncommon Threads, is a watercolor artist who turned to quilting as a new creative outlet. She layers fabric as she would paint to create detailed images. This image of trees, a favorite subject, is titled "Fragmentary Blue."

Christina Dicken / News-Leader

Diane Kelsay uses photo techniques, exotic fabric and layers of colorful thread for her quilts.

Diane Kelsay

Pam RuBert cuts out a teapot for a quilt in her studio in Springfield. RuBert became interested in quilting about two years ago; she is part of Ozark Piecemakers Quilt Guild.

Christina Dicken / News-Leader

Want to go?

What: "Uncommon Threads," an exhibit of art quilts by Lucy Silliman, Pam RuBert, Emmie Seaman, Merrilee Tieche, Susan Lumsden, Cathy Jeffrey, Diane Kelsay, Lettie Blackburn, Maureen Ashlock and Rosemary Claus-Gray

When: Today through Feb. 26 during gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Hawthorn Gallery, 214 E. Walnut St.

Information: Call the gallery at 866-6660 or e-mail Pam RuBert at for information on the art group.


A reception for the exhibit is from 5 to 8 p.m. today. The gallery is open from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday for the First Friday Art Walk.

When Pam RuBert gets called away from her studio and the cartoon-like illustrations she works on there, the artist doesn't worry about drying paint or messy cleanup. That's because RuBert creates with fabric and thread, and her canvas is a quilt — an art quilt, to be more precise.

RuBert became interested in quilting about two years ago, but she soon realized traditional piecing felt too restrictive for her.

"I decided if I was going to get anywhere, I had to do something different," says RuBert. "I've always done cartoons. And when I figured out I could continue my drawings (in quilts), a light bulb went off."

Traditional quilts certainly require creativity and skill, but quilts created for walls instead of beds break the rules, say enthusiasts. While they incorporate traditional elements, and certainly the techniques, finished works — like art in any medium — might be abstracts, designs or illustrations.

In southwest Missouri, recent converts like RuBert and more established quilters have found support and camaraderie through a new small group that's part of Ozark Piecemakers Quilt Guild. Called Uncommon Threads, local and regional members have been commissioned for their work, shown pieces in major national exhibits and won awards.

Beginning today through Feb. 26, an exhibit of 70 pieces hangs at Hawthorn Gallery downtown.

Creating quilts strictly as art is a relatively recent and somewhat controversial trend that's gaining acceptance at the national and local level.

"It's an incredibly rapid and recent explosion of interest," says Martha Sielman, executive director of Studio Art Quilt Associates, an international organization that serves art quilters and promotes the medium as legitimate contemporary fine art.

"If you look at the numbers, traditional quilters in the country still vastly outweigh the art quilters," says Sielman, who lives in Connecticut. "But there's a lot more awareness and a lot more interest, and I think it's the fastest-growing segment of the quilting industry."

sew Art

Art quilts are created with free-form piecing, applique, embellishment, photo and print techniques, hand-dyed fabrics and painted images. Like art quilters nationwide, some among the Uncommon Threads group adopted quilting as a new medium for their art. Others, like Merrilee Tieche, are traditional quilters who sought more self-expression.

Tieche learned to quilt the traditional way when she moved to this area about 15 years ago. Four years ago, she gave up patterns in favor of free-form creations. Today, about eight of her collage-style art pieces — including fish images and eye charts — hang in St. John's Health System buildings.

Quilters have a lot to unlearn when they trade the measured precision of traditional piecing for freehand art, she says. But like the others in her group, she's passionate about her new outlet.

"I think all of us have an artist buried in our souls," she says, "and now we have the freedom to address that."

National award-winners Lucy Silliman of Kansas and Emmie Seaman of Stockton create abstracts.

Silliman leans toward bold, swirling shapes.

Seaman created a series of tornado-themed wall-hangings after storms damaged her hometown. Most of her works, like another she calls a "divorce quilt," are personal.

"Quilting for me is very emotional," Seaman says. When she's upset or feeling stress, "instead of standing there and yelling, I'll go back and sew."

Diane Kelsay is a photographer who owns a travel consulting business with her husband. She took up quilting as a new outlet for the photos she takes around the world. She often incorporates cloth from various countries along with organic embellishments. For one of her pieces, she used layers of batting to make a photograph she took of boulders look three-dimensional.

"I like to do all kinds of crazy things," she says. Call them quilts or call them wall-hangings: "Art is art. There shouldn't be any rules."

Lettie Blackburn is a watercolor artist and longtime sewer who recently turned to quilting after Tieche invited her to an Uncommon Threads meeting.

Blackburn was hooked. In less than two months, she's created four wall quilts and counting.

"I really feel that the fabric is the paint and I draw on it with my sewing machine," she says.

From a distance, RuBert's illustrations don't look like quilts at all. Up close, it's apparent they're created from "funky" polka dots, plaids and striped fabric in bright colors outlined in black cloth. Like illustrations of any kind, her ideas begin as scribbly sketches that she transfers into a computer program. There she refines the image, studies color options and prints out a pattern.

RuBert's images are humorous takes on her ordinary experiences — like collecting clutter in "Mysterious Migration of Miscellaneous Objects" and her love-hate relationships with computers in "PaMdora's Box." The latter was accepted into Quilt National, a prestigious international show in Athens, Ohio, that goes up May through September and then travels for two years.

Creating with fabric works best for RuBert's busy life right now, she says.

"One reason I like this is I can drop it anytime and pick it right back up. You can shut the door and come back and your paints aren't all dried up."

But is it a quilt?

Appraising art quilts is completely different from appraising their traditional cousins, says Kathy Kansier of Nixa, one of 70 certified quilt appraisers in the country.

"It's more like judging art."

The value depends on the quality of work, technique and the artist's reputation. Artists whose work is accepted into national shows, published in books or wins awards sell for more. RuBert's work will increase in value, Kansier says, after "PaMdora's Box" appears in Quilt National.

"I wish I had money to buy a quilt from her now because they will go high," Kansier says.

Last year, nationally acclaimed textile artist Hollis Chatelain won best of show at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas — one of the biggest quilt shows in the country. Her large quilt called "Precious Water" — a social commentary on the rarity of water — is conveyed through an illustration the artist painted on fabric with dye and then stitched into a quilt.

But the question was raised: Can Chatelain's art be called a quilt?

Art quilts are hard to define, says Kansier. Chatelain's work has fetched up to $40,000 — the most Kansier has ever heard for a quilt. Yet her work has caused an uproar among some in the industry.

"That somebody is painting fabric rather than piecing," Kansier says.

However, technically, it is a quilt.

"The definition of a quilt is three layers of fabric held together by thread, whether by hand or machine," she says.

Chatelain is part of a new wave of quilt-making, she says, "and you either like it or you don't."

Historically, quilts as art have been around for a while, says Sielman of Studio Art Quilt Associates. In the 1930s at the Chicago Worlds Fair, the work of some quilt contestants would be called art quilts today, she says. Experimental quilt artists were emerging by the 1960s.

But the turning point came in 1971 when "Abstract Design in American Quilts" — an exhibit of colorful and abstract Amish quilts — was displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

It was the prestige of the Whitney show that drew people from art backgrounds to consider quilts as a new medium, Seilman says. Since then, "I think it's been sort of snowballing."

For instance, Quilting Arts magazine was launched six years ago. Today, Seilman says, it boasts 95,000 subscriptions. She also points to a quilt calendar she receives annually. Five years ago, 90 percent of the quilts pictured were traditional.

"Now it's swung the other way. The minority are traditional, the majority, experimental."

The genre is still in transition. Even as some traditionalists question whether art quilts are quilting at all, "there are museums and galleries who say it's not art because it's made out of fabric."

Still, it's an exciting time for art quilts, she says: "So much is being done that's new and innovative. And they're always beautiful."

Quilting resources

Learn more about art quilts and view works by local and national artists through these Web sites and books


• Ozark Piecemakers Quilt Guild is at Click on Art Quilt Group to learn more about Uncommon Threads and see examples of work.

• View more work by Uncommon Threads artists at www.pam or http://pamdoras;; or


• Quilt National: www.quilt

• International Quilt Festival/Houston:

•American Quilter's Society:

• Studio Art Quilt Associates:

• Nationally acclaimed artist Hollis Chatelain:

• Quilting Arts Magazine:

•Alliance for American Quilts: (an international mailing list for contemporary quilters)


• "Free Style Quilts" by Susan Carlson

• "The Art Quilt" by Robert Shaw

• Visit for more ideas.

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