In every medium, in every generation, creative people tend to push the boundaries of accepted definitions.

So it was with quilts in the late 1970s. During that period, "artists began creating original designs which were not intended as bed covers," said Hilary Fletcher, project director of Quilt National. "But they were layered and stitched fabric, which made them quilts."

Except in those days, Fletcher said, the commonly held narrow definition of quilting meant that most of these new art-quilts were not exhibited in traditional quilt shows. "The only option these quilters had were mixed media fiber shows, with baskets and weavings."

About that time, in Athens, Ohio, a grass-roots group petitioned the governor to save from demolition a dairy barn that was built in 1914 as part of a mental hospital. It became the Dairy Barn Southeastern Ohio Cultural Arts Center, and because one of the people involved in that cause was Nancy Crow, a prominent art-quilter in the area, the idea for Quilt National was born.

Considered by many "the premiere international showcase for contemporary quilts," the biennial exhibit is celebrating its 22nd year and 13th show. And for the first time, a Quilt National Juried Exhibition will be coming to Utah.

Ninety artists from 20 countries submitted 1,421 contemporary works for the competition; 90 quilts were selected for this year's show. They have now been divided into three collections, which are touring the country. (Few galleries have room for the whole show, said Fletcher. "We're lucky; our cows needed lots of space.")

One of those shows, featuring 22 quilts, will be in the Brigham City Museum-Gallery through June 25.

"I'm amazed at the number of people in the area who know about Quilt National and even travel back there," said museum director Larry Douglass. "We had a lot of requests to bring it here. We saw their slides and booklet and the quality of the work and knew we wanted to do this. They have just absolutely wonderful things. Some look just like paintings."

It's a different way of looking at quilting, Douglass said. "We know people will appreciate the aesthetic value."

These are "quilts by structure not by function," said Fletcher. "The same strategies and techniques that we've been expressing for generations but with a different end product."

Many of the quilts use variations in stitching, or hand-dyed fabrics or other techniques of style and design. Most are quilted by machine, which, said Fletcher, "is much more difficult. Controlling an electric needle is harder than controlling a single needle and thimble. The quilt lines add a whole other art element."

Sometimes, she said, people come to the show expecting bed covers, and say they like the old-fashioned designs better. "We tell them that every old-fashioned design was once someone's original design. These artists are wonderfully skilled at manipulating the quilt line to enhance the visual image."

Quilt National is evidence of the evolution of the art form, she said. "You don't expect cars that are made in 2003 to look like cars made in 1933. And quilts made in 2003 don't always look like quilts made in 1933.

"Grandmother and great-grandmother did not have the luxury of going to Wal-Mart and spending $12.95 to keep her family warm. Quilts were a matter of necessity."

That's not true any more. And while many beautiful bed-cover quilts are still being made, these art quilts simply "say there is not only one right way."

Design and techniques may vary, but some things are the same, Fletcher said. "These quilters are using materials they have chosen to make statements about themselves and the world they live in."

Quilting, she said, still provides the same pleasure in creation it always has.


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