Sunday, April 8, 2018

Live at Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens: Carole Feuerman

To hear Carole Feuerman tell it, she almost killed the first model for what would become her groundbreaking hyperrealistic sculptures. Back in 1975, Feuerman was a recent graduate from art school working as an illustrator. She was hired by National Lampoon to create cover art for the magazine's work-related issue entitled "Nose to the Grindstone."

Feuerman persuaded the magazine's art director to serve as the model for the image. It was her first lifecasting. She vividly remembers the straws sticking out of his nose to enable him to breathe and the difficulty she had removing the plaster. She said her goal had been for him to pretend he was in pain. No acting was required.

It was a somewhat ironic start for an artist who told me, "I didn't want to do people with limbs cut off; I wanted to do something beautiful." (No offense intended to the Venus de Milo, I'm sure.)

"Bibi on the Ball"
Today Feuerman is known as one of the pioneers of the genre of hyperrealistic sculpture. Her works are owned by the likes of Malcolm Forbes, Bill Clinton and the Emperor of Japan. And here's the kicker -- four of her sculptures are currently on display at the Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens in Punta Gorda.

Feuerman was on hand for the unveiling of her "Bibi on the Ball" and "Next Summer." The commissioned works were delivered to the Gardens directly from their stint at the Venice Biennale, where the Tetrault Foundation had allowed them to be displayed while the Gardens got up and running. Feuerman said with a laugh, "These sculptures have passports. 

Detail from "Bibi on the Ball"
As Feuerman surveyed her sculptures in situ, she talked a bit about the genesis of her work. She recalled being at the beach one day with her kids. She was not in a happy place at the time. She remembers watching an older woman emerge from the water, her arms back, head up, with water streaming down her face. She looked to Feuerman like she had it all. Feuerman's bathers recall this woman's strength and contentment.

"Bibi on the Ball" was the first stop on our tour. Bibi proudly perches atop a beach ball. Its spherical shape represents the world. The ball was made from stainless steel rather than resin at Roger Tetrault's request. It is a nod to Sir Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" in Chicago.  While the work was created before the #MeToo movement, Feuerman feels the sculpture makes its own contribution. Overall, though, Feuerman said she intends her bathers to be a reminder to enjoy all that life offers. 

Carole Feuerman with "Next Summer"
Feuerman's attention to detail is one reason her sculptures are so successful. You might have noticed that Bibi has recently had a French pedicure. Bibi and the swimmer in "Next Summer" also have sculpted drops of water on their bodies and clothing. Feuerman noted the drops can only be found on her resin pieces -- she also works in bronze -- and that she no longer includes them in works intended to live outdoors due to the difficulty of restoration. She also uses human hair in some of her works, including "Bibi on the Ball."

While most sculptors of hyperrealistic works use real clothes on their creations and stuff them, Feuerman crafts her bathers' entire bodies and swimwear. As a result, it was easy to accommodate the Tetraults' request to feature a hibiscus pattern on the swimsuit in "Next Summer."  Punta Gorda is, after all, known as the City of Hibiscus. (For an example of a work using street clothes, click here to see Duane Hanson's "Tourists." I couldn't resist posing with this sculpture when I saw it in Edinburgh last year.) 

"Monumental Fire and Harmony"
While "Bibi on the Ball" and "Next Summer" were in Venice, Feuerman loaned the Gardens "New York City Slicker," another water-themed resin work, and "Monumental Fire and Harmony," a bronze. While we were admiring the dancer in her permanent grand battement on rond, Feuerman shared that she aspired to be a dancer when she a child. Her admiration for their balance and perseverance shine through in her sculptures.

It has not yet been announced whether "New York City Slicker" and "Monumental Fire and Harmony" will remain at the Gardens or travel the world. For now, though, art lovers have a unique opportunity to see four Feuerman sculptures in one place. Don't miss them. 

For more about the Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens, click here.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Sarasota Museum of Art Defines Itself

Sarasota High is being converted into the Sarasota Museum of Art
Despite being in the midst of moving madness, I couldn't resist a lecture about the new Sarasota Museum of Art entitled "Building a New Museum: Vision, Criteria and Strategy."  After all, how often do you get a peek inside what goes into creating a museum from the ground up? (The expression's not quite accurate, since the old Sarasota High is being renovated for the primary space, but I'm sure you get my drift.)

Executive Director and Chief Curator Anne-Marie Russell gave a high energy talk about the process. She posed a seemingly basic question: What is a contemporary art museum? But the answer is not so straightforward. Russell broke it down for us by parsing each of these words.

Alfred Barr "torpedo" model
In art history terms, "modernism" is essentially the period from 1850-1950.  That makes "contemporary" art everything from 1950 to the present. Russell talked about the role of the Museum of Modern Art in establishing a contemporary museum. The original intention of Alfred Barr, MOMA's founding director, was for the museum to exhibit only contemporary art. Barr envisioned MOMA as a torpedo, a 50 or 100 year arrow shooting through space, always moving forward and dropping off works that no longer fit the "contemporary" rubric.

But here's the rub: That model means the museum would have to de-accession works once they age out. What, then, should MOMA do with Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night" once the cut-off date rolled around, be it 1940 or 1990?  (Van Gogh painted "Starry Night" in 1889.) Sell the painting off to fund truly contemporary work?

MOMA's solution was to affiliate with another established contemporary art museum--P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City. MOMA PS1 now fulfills Barr's original intention of displaying cutting edge contemporary work, allowing MOMA the latitude to continue to show works like "Starry Night."

Matthew Barney
With this background, Russell brought this philosophy home to the mission of the Sarasota Museum of Art. On the curatorial side, the Museum's framework will be "Then/Now," with "Then" being 1950-2000 and "Now" being the 21st century. Her split slide on the concept featured a de Kooning under "Then" and a Matthew Barney image under "Now." 

Educationally, however, anything will be fair game for the Museum. "Always and forever!" will be the Museum's mantra, as its team goes about educating Sarasota art lovers about the foundations of contemporary art.

Next Russell was on to the question of what constitutes (quality) art. Like most most contemporary museums, the Sarasota Museum of Art will adopt the Bauhaus model, which encompasses all variety of media and disciplines. Russell noted that video and performance art will be included under this umbrella.

Christian Sampson Color Light Projection on display
As to who decides what art will be exhibited, the responsibility lies with the curators. Russell's background leaves no question as to her qualifications. Before turning to art history, she studied anthropology and thus prides herself on being able to take a "big world view." While at Christies' auction house, she designed an object-based master's program on connoisseurship. Instead of developing their ability to evaluate art based on reproductions, these students went on field trips to museum basements to study works not currently on display and to artist studios to learn about their art. So she's had an opportunity to delve in a unique way into the question of what distinguishes a great work of art from a merely good one. Russell also believes her experience as a teacher will help her define both the scope of an exhibit and what artwork will best advance the theme. (Teaser: The Museum's inaugural exhibit will be Color Theory + B/W, an accessible theme with countless educational avenues to explore.)

Finally, Russell arrived at the question what constitutes a museum. The American Alliance of Museums has a long definition that includes objectives like exhibition, conservation, research and education. The Sarasota Museum of Art is three years into the AAM's eight year accreditation process. (Note: The Museum is planning to open in late 2019, before accreditation is in place.)

But we all know more or less what a museum is. What was interesting was learning that the Museum will be a kunsthalle, or non-collecting museum. The reason for this choice is simple: money. Russell noted that the costs associated with maintaining a collection go well beyond the dollars required to purchase the art. You have to house that art permanently, whether on display or not, and develop a lending program. A massive endowment--beyond the Museum's initial reach--is required in order to operate a collecting museum properly. Russell optimistically said, "Maybe in 10 years we'll be there." For now, though, the Museum will bring in the artwork for its exhibits and bid the works a fond adieu at the end of the show.

Russell's talk was a fascinating look into just a sliver of what is happening behind the scenes as the Sarasota Museum of Art moves towards opening its doors.  I can't wait to learn more.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Theater Overload?

My head is spinning after 36 hours of theater-laden experiences. I know -- I saw six or seven shows a day for days running when Wendi and I went to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.  But watching a show and listening to directors, actors and others involved in the production are different experiences. And the anticipation of seeing these shows adds to the excitement.  Read on for a brief recap.

"Honor Killing" at Florida Studio Theatre -- I have missed taking the Behind the Scenes class at FST this year, but am thrilled to have time to watch this show go from the page to the stage. "Honor Killing" is a world premiere and deals with an American reporter's coverage of the stoning of a Pakistani woman by her family for daring to marry someone other than the family's choice. The topic is an interesting one, but what really has me excited is seeing the technological aspects of the show come together.

FST's Bruce Price
Because the American reporter has been denied entry to Pakistan, she is sidelined in Dubai. As a result, much of the dialogue between the characters takes place via Skype or text messaging. Video will be used in the show as well. Production Manager Bruce Price is tasked with not only overseeing the set, costume, lighting and sound designs, but ensuring that FST has the technology in place to make the show happen.  Seven 55' televisions have been purchased to be embedded in panels across the stage.  (Six are required, but he doesn't want to end up with a dead screen and no replacement with two hours to go until showtime.) The panels will be covered with scrim so they will only be visible when the screen is active. A special software program is on order that will be enable one computer to send signals to the six different screens. A switcher--common to TV stations but not so much for theaters--will also be required. Not surprisingly, FST has brought in a specific production designer who's an expert in working with the technology. Stay tuned for more on this show as my class progresses.

"Roe" at Asolo Repertory Theatre.  I have been eagerly awaiting this production since I learned the fabulous Terri Weagant will be playing Norma McCorvey (aka Jane Roe). Sarasota audiences last saw Terri in Urbanite Theatre's production of "Bo-Nita." Her performance in the one woman show was nothing less than a tour de force.

Terri Weagant
Director Lavina Jadwhani and Terri talked about "Roe" at an Inside Asolo Rep panel discussion. Of course, we all know the decision in the case (if not how it will play out over the years).  Jadwhani, who's been involved with the play since its 2016 premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, noted that the political climate during the show's various productions has affected audience reaction. At OSE, "Roe" felt like an earnest look at a slice of history. At Arena Stage in D.C. in 2017--just days before the inauguration--the play had developed a sense of urgency. It's yet to be determined how the play will hit Sarasota audiences, but to Jadwhani it feels as if we are in the thick of things.

Terri talked about the challenge of setting aside your own point of view when stepping into the shoes of a character. While she thought she had come into the production with a totally open mind, she realized she was judging McCorvey on occasion. (I am not familiar with McCorvey's background, and Terri and Jadwhani's comments about her "shifting" perspectives made me even more eager to see the show.) I appreciated her candor about the struggles of playing McCovey, whom she calls an "unreliable narrator."

An impassioned Frank Galati
"Rhinoceros" at Asolo Repertory Theatre. The panel discussion also included director Frank Galati and actress Peggy Roeder, both of whom are at work on the production of Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros." The Tony-award winning Galati is closely associated with Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, although he directs at least one show at Asolo Rep each season. Roeder is a favorite with Asolo Rep audiences.

When asked to place Ionesco's absurdist play in context, Galati had no difficulty. The play was written in 1959 and deals with the aftermath of WWII.  Galati said the play comes from Ionesco's belief that "there is no reason, order, logic or harmony in the universe, despite the beauty of nature." To quote Ionesco, "What is the world if not absurd?" Galati compared the all-encompassing feeling resulting from this outlook to a man asleep in his bed that suddenly disappears into the void of a sinkhole. (The audience appreciated the Florida analogy.) He noted the power of the theater to encourage audiences to look at issues in a new way.

While the discussion could have gone on for hours, the panel members had other places to be. Roeder had to dash to don her fabulous Queen Elizabeth costume for the matinee performance of "Shakespeare in Love." And for that matter, so did I, since I had tickets for the matinee. The show is a blast, and it was particularly fun to see Roeder's transformation into an imposing Queen Elizabeth wearing hands-down the best costume in the show. (For a reminder of what that costume looked like, click here to read about the costume designer brunch.) 

Other theater notes:  Dorrit and I took in the Asolo Rep Conservatory production of "The Rehearsal" last week-end, and I highly recommend it. It boasts a terrific set and costumes and strong performances all around in a story with a surprising emotional range. The show runs through March 11, and tickets are only $30.

This week-end's theater outing is to FST's "Constellations," the second in its Stage III series. The series is dedicated to more "challenging" shows--due either to content or form-- than those produced in FST's larger theaters. "Constellations" is a play about "an encounter between a man and woman that leads to a spellbinding journey into time and space" and falls firmly into the second category. It sounds like a great theatrical adventure.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Another Evening with John McCutcheon

McCutcheon with his auto harp
A John McCutcheon concert is about a lot more than music. Sure, John is an extraordinary folk singer and songwriter. And he plays a multitude of instruments, including the hammered dulcimer.

But the glue that holds it all together is his storytelling. John can weave a tale like nobody's business. By the time he gets started singing, you have a sense of time and place and people that gives the song context and meaning.  

His recent concert at Riverwood began with a story about the annual third of July party and potluck supper in Avondale States, GA. John reported that the food people bring to this event is not your typical picnic potluck fare. "And I'm a folk singer," he said with a laugh. "I know potlucks."

One year John looked down at his plate and found an exceptional assortment of cuisines. His description of the combination made the audience laugh. There was a burrito and an egg roll alongside more traditional BBQ and fried chicken. And with that image in our minds, he launched into his song "Immigrant," which goes, in part:

"She said, 'Give me your tired'
Lord you know I'm weary
When she said 'Give me your poor'
She's talking to me
One of your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free
And I have never lost sight of
What this journey has been for
See how she lifts her lamp
Beside that golden door....."

To hear John perform "Immigrant," click here.

Then there's the song "The Machine," included on his album Ghost Light that was hot off the presses the night of the concert. A transplanted Wisconsin boy, John lived in Charlottesville for a fair portion of his adult life. He raised his family there. And so the Ku Klux Klan rally held there last summer felt particularly personal.

John commented the day of the rally was the first time he was glad his father, a proud WWII veteran, was no longer alive. The song is written from the perspective of a veteran watching the marchers stride down the street in front of his home. The lyrics go, in part, "I didn't fight the Nazis to allow them in this place."

The refrain is an homage to Woody Guthrie's belief, clearly shared by John, that we all can use our own talents and skills to fight injustice. It goes, "Woody Guthrie had this guitar with the best sign that I've seen. 'This machine kills fascists.' We must be the Machine." John went on to say the Machine might be a musical instrument or a diploma or, even simpler, an outstretched hand.

To hear John sing "The Machine" with an accompanying video, click here.

You might be getting the sense that a John McCutcheon is only about politics. Au contraire. He also writes songs that will make you laugh out loud.

A lifelong baseball fan, John's Sermon on the Mound is an entire album devoted to America's favorite pastime. His "Talking Yogi Talk" is, you guessed it, a song that borrows liberally from Yogi Berra's classic statements. The audience was practically doubled over as he sang. Click here to hear it.

And then there's "The Red Corvette" -- a song John wrote about a woman selling a '94 Corvette for a mere $65. Click here to listen -- the punch line is more classic than the car. (Sadly, we didn't hear about the genesis of this song.)

With John
You've probably figured out that I've become a huge John McCutcheon fan. I've had the pleasure of talking with John twice for articles for Florida Weekly, and he is just a delight. In our recent conversation, I picked up where we'd left off last year.

John had been on his way to his grandson's pre-school to perform a gig there. "How'd it go?" I asked. I could hear a smile in his voice as he recalled his two year old grandson pulling up a stool next to him, strumming his banjo and singing along. Stiff competition.

John said his daughter is thinking of bringing his grandson to one of his concerts this year. Whoa. What will that be like for him to realize that his grandfather is famous and doesn't just sing around the house and at nursery school? 

I suggested it might be like a kid seeing their actor parent on the big screen for the first time. More modestly, John likened it more to running into a teacher in a grocery store and realizing they have a life outside of school. Or perhaps it will be like the thunderbolt that hit John when he saw a few strands of hair peeking out from a nun's wimple.

If you ever get a chance to see John perform, don't miss it. In the meantime, pick up one--or more--of his CDs. Ghost Light is a great place to start.

When she said “Give me your poor”
She's talking to me
One of your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free
And I never have lost sight of
What this journey has been for
See how she lifts her lamp
Beside that golden door

Monday, February 12, 2018

11th Biennial National Art Exhibition at the Visual Arts Center

There are many things I'm going to miss about living in Punta Gorda. Of course the friends I've made are at the top of the list. My involvement with the Visual Arts Center runs a close second, though. Chairing the 11th Biennial National Art Exhibition has been the perfect swan song before I head up the road to Sarasota.
"Yvonne" by Sandra Kuck
First, some quick statistics. We received 574 digital entries from 218 artists in 38 states, Austria, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan and the UK. (Each artist could enter up to three works.) Our juror, Steven J. Levin, selected the 137 works on display for inclusion in the show. Steven then came down to Punta Gorda from Minneapolis and selected the 16 winners of the $7900 in prize money. All judging was done on a blind basis. His criteria were concept, color, composition, drawing and emotion.

Best of Show (with a check for $2000) went to "Yvonne" by Sandra Kuck of Boca Raton.  I've been involved with four national shows, and this is the first time I've agreed with the judge. In fact, I picked "Yvonne" as the award winner the second I saw it online.

But while "Yvonne" is stunning--Steven called the work a tour de force--it's not my favorite in the show. In fact, par for the course, the works that speak loudest to me didn't win awards. But that doesn't mean I can't share them here.

"Who's Next (#whosnext)"
by Dan Simoneau
"Who's Next (#whosnext)" is getting my vote for the People's Choice Award. (So much for the sanctity of the ballot box!) What initially drew me to Dan Simoneau's work was his use of light and shadow and the depiction of his model's musculature. Simoneau's intentions behind the painting put it over the top.

Simoneau lives near Chicago and frequently uses African-American youth from the city as his models. The painting shows Prince, one of his favorites. Prince came into the studio and, as he's wont to do, put on some music. On this occasion, it was heartbreaking blues. Simoneau's mind was immediately drawn to the high rate of shootings, arrests, stops and interrogations of African-American men. The striped shirt reminded him of prison bars. The position of his hands on his head evoked both the fetal position and the universal sign for "I don't have a gun." The vein pulsing in Prince's forehead indicates stress. It's a remarkable commentary on our times as well as an amazing work of art.

"Exodus 2:22" by Shirley Fachilla

Then there's "Exodus 2:22" by Shirley Fachilla. I was drawn immediately to the gorgeous colors of this painting. Perhaps I also sensed that the artist took the photograph used as her reference point in New York's Central Park. Again, the intention behind the painting gives it more meaning.

Fachilla says the painting is about how it feels to be alone in a new country. Her inspiration statement goes on to say, "In Exodus 2:22, Moses gave expression to every immigrant's feeling whether an immigrant now or in the second millennium B.C. 'For I am a stranger in a strange land,' said Moses."

"Happy Drinking Bird" by Kyle Surges

But don't worry -- I haven't gone totally political on you (nor has the exhibit). "Happy Drinking Bird" by Kyle Surges took Second Place in the show. It made me laugh in surprise and amazement the moment I saw the image of this work online.

Surges' artistic statement says this work was inspired by an episode of "Mad Men" in which the guys are standing around trying to figure out how one of these things works. This bird's drink of choice is an old-fashioned, another nod to our advertising execs. Kyle said that, like the bird, "I found that once you start drinking these, you really don't want to stop, which pairs nicely with the slogan on the box that the bird is packaged in."  My favorite part of the painting is the tiny drop of liquid on the bird's nose.

"The Reading Chair" by Ginny Lasco
Ginny Lasco's "The Reading Chair" is also high on my list of faves -- for obvious reasons. Her chair is so inviting that you want to just sit down and enjoy the view. (Our installation committee cleverly positioned the woman in "Exodus 2:22" so the chair appears to be her destination.) While Lasco's image is striking from across the room, it's only when you get up close that you truly appreciate the work. You can see the detail of every screw and pebble. The tiny cracks in the chair from sitting outside in all kinds of weather are another nice touch. We couldn't resist using this work as our primary image for marketing materials.

"Bleat" by Stephen Bufter

I'll leave you with a painting that makes me laugh every time I see it -- "Bleat" by Stephen Bufter. The story behind this painting was a bit of a surprise. Bufter got the idea for this work after helping birth lambs at a 15th century working farm B&B outside of Manchester, England. What really makes this painting for me is the fact the sheep is sticking out its tongue at the viewer. It makes me wonder if Bufter was taunted by his charges for taking a "City Slickers"-like vacation. What I can say with certainty is that it's the way I feel about anyone who misses the opportunity to see this fabulous show.

The 11th Biennial National Art Exhibition runs through March 20 at the Visual Arts Center in Punta Gorda, FL.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

"Goodbye, Vitamin" by Rachel Khong

A book about a 30 year old woman who takes a year out of her life to help care for her father--who's suffering from dementia--sounds pretty depressing. And if your own father bears some resemblance to Ruth's dad, well....  But I trusted Wendi's judgment that the book wouldn't put me in a funk. And I'm so glad I did -- "Goodbye, Vitamin" by Rachel Khong is a real treat.

Khong's debut novel is written in diary form and had me reaching for my post-its by the second entry, dated December 26. As part of her Christmas present, Ruth's father began sharing pages from a notebook he'd kept about her since she was a small child. The first page he showed her read:

"Today you asked me where metal comes from.  You asked me what flavor are germs. You were distressed because your pair of gloves had gone missing. When I asked for a description, you said: they are sort of shaped like my hands."  

Each entry from her father's notebook -- doled out over the year -- is a gem.

In another early entry, Ruth talks about a family photo that caught her attention -- a picture of her father and uncle with her just hours after she was born. Her father is wearing a black and white patterned t-shirt. The waistband of a pair of red pants just peeks into the photo. Inexplicably, her uncle is shirtless and, because of the angle, it seems he might be naked.

The story behind the photo had become part of their family lore. Uncle John had arrived at the hospital wearing a red shirt. Ruth's father was outraged. He had learned his newborn baby might be able to see red, black and white (hence, his outfit). What if baby Ruth got confused and bonded with her uncle instead of him? He insisted his brother strip off his shirt for the visit and -- good brother that he was -- he complied. 

As the book progressed, I realized it was not about her father losing his memory, but about memories more generally. As Ruth settles back into her childhood home, she runs into all kinds of characters from her childhood days. Memories of her younger years abound as she forges new relationships with old friends.

We learn her brother Linus' family memories are quite a bit different from Ruth's own. The five years he remained at home after Ruth went to college were filled with conflict. While Ruth knew what was happening, hearing about it was completely different than living through it. Linus' anger makes him reluctant to spend time with his father, even during his decline. 

Rachel Khong
Ruth's mother, of course, has her own perspective on her marriage and their family. And she's tired from struggling with her husband and his failing brain. But she's doing her best to help her husband at least maintain his mental status quo.

In one passage, Ruth says, "Mom's quit cooking, like a person might quit smoking or gambling." Not because putting food on the table has become too overwhelming a task, but because she's concerned that the "years of cooking in aluminum pots, cooking with canned good, led to the dementia."  

And then there's Ruth's father -- a once brilliant professor who's just been put out to pasture due to his declining health. You see the struggle of this proud man every day, and your heart breaks just a little. In a wonderful storyline, his students come up with an elaborate scheme for him to teach a semester-long course unsanctioned by the college. They use classrooms whose professors are out sick and offsite locations with loose ties to the historical subject matter being covered. But no good deed goes unpunished.

Towards the end of the book, Ruth's diary mimics the notebook her father kept when she was a child. 

August 1:  "Today you washed your shoelaces. Today you spoon-fed the neighbor's cat tuna from a can.... Today you disappeared again, and scared the shit out of us." 

The book jacket cites a review calling "Goodby, Vitamin""equal parts clever and tender." I agree, but would add funny and thought-provoking to the description. Not thought-provoking in the sense of making you consider big issues in today's complicated world, but in the sense of making you think about your own life and family.

As you can probably tell, I've fallen a bit in love with this book. Thanks to the Tournament of Books for bringing it to my attention. For more about the Tournament of Books and the selections in this year's competition, click here.  

Sunday, January 28, 2018

War and Pieced at The American Folk Art Museum

Samuel Atwood, Army tailor
I thought I was just killing time when I wandered into The American Folk Art Museum before a performance of Ayad Aktar's "Junk" at Lincoln Center. But I had stumbled into a fascinating exhibit about quilts made by soldiers, sailors and regimental tailors entitled "War and Pieced."

Most of the quilts in the show come from the collection of quilt historian Annette Gero. These quilts, made during conflicts in Crimea, South Africa, India, Prussia, Austria and France, were intended to be hung on walls as art or used as table coverings rather than bedding. The wall card went on to explain, "The end use was less critical than the act of creation itself, either during a campaign or upon return to the safe harbor of home."

Many of the quilts were made from fabrics used in regular military and dress uniforms. Some were actually taken from the uniforms of fallen soldiers.

Soldier's Quilt , probably India 1850-1880
In the eyes of the curator (and, presumably, Ms. Gero), "The uniforms, associated with the best and the worst of humanity, are thus rehabilitated as an act of redemption for those darker human impulses. The uniforms are metamorphosed into testaments of ordered sanity and beauty, even as the highly organized geometry grants the solder an illusion of control over the predations of war in which he has both witnessed and participated."

The quilt shown here was likely made during the British occupation of India during the mid-19th century. There apparently was not much going on militarily, so the soldiers had to find ways to productively spend their time. In an effort to keep the soldiers occupied, the British government offered industrial exhibitions and professional workshops at which the soldiers could learn skills like needlework.

Detail from Soldier's quilt
The detail in the Indian quilts in particular is a bit mind-boggling. Once again, I'll quote from the wall card, "[Quilts made in India] are often constructed in the inlaid technique, whereby the pieces are joined with little or no seam allowance so they are virtually identical on the front and back...But what really sets quilts made in India apart are the masterful technique, embellishment and attention to detail. ...each seam is expertly covered with rickrack, braid or embroidery. Surface embellishments might include glass beads and spangles or...the tiny discs of fabric ejected as buttonholes were pierced into woolens during the tailoring process."  Due to the complexity of these quilts, it is thought that most are the work of professional regimental or Indian tailors.

Detail from a Crimean War Signature Quilt 

I was touched by the example of a Crimean War Signature Quilt. You can see how much simpler this quilt is than its Indian counterpart. But the thought of a soldier--far from home and risking his life for his country-- taking up a needle and some fabric to make a quilt for his sister just kind of gets to me.

The idea of passing time by making quilts didn't only come from the British government. The popular press during the era romanticized the practice of military quiltmaking with the sentimental image of the drummer boy.Temperance periodicals also played a role, as they promoted the idea of quiltmaking as a masculine activity in hopes of providing soldiers (and other men) with an alternative to the evils of drink.

Intarsia Quilt with Soldiers and Musicians, 
Prussia, 1760-1780
Just when I thought the exhibit couldn't get more impressive, I walked up a few steps to an additional display area. The centerpiece of the room was a table displaying this 55' x 43' Intarsia quilt. (Intarsia is a specific type of inlaying often associated with woodworking.)

I learned that Intarsia quilts often rely on copy prints as sources for their design. (Another quilt depicted the members of the House of Commons from 1860 and was displayed next to a photograph from which the quiltmaker worked. It was a truly amazing replica of the lawmakers.)  It is believed this quilt was a tribute to King Frederick William III of Prussia with its centerpiece crest of the Prussian coat of arms.

Detail from King George III Intarsia Quilt
And speaking of coats of arms, I'll leave you with a detail from a King George III Intarsia quilt that makes me laugh. The image shown here is the centerpiece of the quilt. It depicts Queen Charlotte and King George standing above the royal coat of arms, which includes a guardian lion wearing St. Edward's crown and a Scottish unicorn. First of all, what's the deal with this lion, who more closely resembles the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz than the ferocious king of the jungle? Second, why is the unicorn Scottish? According to Wikipedia's description of the coat of arms, the unicorn is considered a dangerous beast when allowed to run free and is thus typically depicted as chained. The characterization of the unicorn as Scottish, then, calls to mind the country's failed vote for independence. This royal coat of arms continue to be used today.

To learn more about this exhibit and see more (and better) images of these amazing quilts, click here to read a great article from a site called "Hypoallergic."

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