Rather like watercolors, quilts are a medium that attracts a big range of practitioners. There are the keen stitchers who like the puzzle challenge all the way to artists who realize the expressive possibilities of fiber. “Cutting Edge,” just up at the Washington State History Museum, has both. A combination of juried work from the Washington Contemporary Quilt Art Association and historic items from the museum’s collection, “Cutting Edge” occasionally lives up to its name with stunning, imaginative pieces — but with a lot of predictable landscapes and patterns as well.
All of the works, however, are highly skilled. Chosen from nearly 200 entries by museum staff and expert quilters, “Cutting Edge” has plenty of fine technique to look at, if you know what you’re looking for.
Also fascinating is the entry room, filled with seven historical quilts from the museum’s collection, ranging from a large 1942 quilt by Adelia Laughlin Caulfield filled with medallions of Washington history scenes and bordered with native plants, all the way to a sweet navy-and-white baby’s quilt from the late 19th century done in Ohio star pattern. An 1845 quilt, brought over on the Oregon Trail by Mary Etta Crow, shows the passage of time and use in its concentric squares, from worn red plaids and scuffed brown velvets to newer fabric used to patch.
Folks still make practical quilts for use, or with unchallenging, decorative scenes. And there are plenty of these in the juried show: photo-perfect European streetscapes, flowers, large quilts like paintings in desert colors.
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But the most interesting ones explore the medium and push the boundaries of fiber art. Jill Schottens pays homage to the fallen World Trade Center with a thin red embroidered tower toppling into clouds of black and white thread smoke, an abstract grid of quilted skyscapers behind. Lisa Jenni made a eulogy for the 32 lost lives at the Virginia Tech shooting with a four-by-eight grid of pale yellow panels, each with a shadowed torso with embroidered blood-red splodge. Cathy Erickson’s “Behind the Shoji Door” also uses a grid, but the fabric photographs and poems from Japanese internment camps turn the brown screen frame into prison bars.
Some experiments with mixed media work: Caryl Fallert’s neat “chest-of-drawers” pattern of photographs from a watchmaker’s desk bordered with vintage watch parts, Marcia Mellinger’s tribute to Van Gogh with whirls of bicycle gears and shiny bottle caps filling the starry night. Some don’t work so well: the words printed on Barbara O’Steen’s pillowed forest sculpture only add to the children’s-museum flavor; a quilt of stitched CDs just looks odd.
But the stars of the show merge exploration with vision.
Carla Stehr, a retired microbiologist who spent her youth on Puget Sound beaches and her career at NOAA staring at sea life through a microscope, recreates that astonishing, patterned detail in quilt form, playing with structure and shape as she goes. Close-ups of amphipods and fish skin have a macro-photography feel with three dimensions created by textures like raised dots in meandering lines or clever shading of eggplant to peach. She recreates shark denticles with stiff interfacing and paint, uses intentional holes to add depth and movement.
Carla Di Pietro also experiments with dimension in “Shoaling,” sewing a mosaic of cream, orange and purple ovals swarming over a mesh net that bends and flexes in front of an ocean-quilt background.
And deep in the far corner (this is a big show, keep going to the end of it) is Margaret Liston’s “Fifteen Birds,” a wistful elegy of hand-painted fabric chickadees floating over a quiet, pale-gray rectangle — and then floating back in, barely seen as negative space between the stitches.
Quilts have traveled from items of comfort, warmth and community to an expressive, tactile art form, and it’s exciting to see what Washington quilters are building from their fibers.
Cutting Edge: Art Quilts of Washington
Who: Juried show by Contemporary Quilt Art Association.
Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays through Aug. 21.
Admission: $12 adults; $8 senior, student, military; free for 5 and younger and for all after 2 p.m. third Thursdays.