Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Quilts evoke warmth, comfort and a sense of community

Handmade bed coverings give gallery homey air

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Snacks and drinks aren't allowed in the Buhler Gallery, the peaceful professional art space located off the main lobby/food court of St. Boniface General Hospital.

Good thing, too, because it's horrifying to think of somebody's coffee splashing the beautiful historic quilts -- some well over 100 years old -- displayed in a just-opened show called Quilts: Past and Present.

The free exhibition of 29 quilted works dating back to 1850 is on view until Jan. 22. It showcases nine historic quilts on loan from the Manitoba Crafts Museum and Library, and mixes them in among contemporary works by Heather Lair, an acclaimed fabric artist from Gimli.

Lair, winner of the first prize in this year's National Quilt Association contest (her winning entry is included here), often inserts quilted Lake Winnipeg landscapes into geometric-patterned backgrounds. The result can be like viewing our geographic home through a window in the fabric of our domestic home.

Curator Patricia Bovey decided to mount a fall/winter quilt show partly for the homey qualities and memories evoked by handmade, intricately stitched bed coverings, often pieced together from a family's clothing scraps.

About a third of the gallery's 15,000 annual visitors are patients, she says, while about a third are hospital staff seeking stress relief and another third are from the general public, including families visiting ailing patients.

"Quilts are very warm," Bovey says. "They evoke nostalgia, comfort and multiple generations."

While there's a strict "don't touch" rule for the hanging textiles, visitors are invited to touch three traditional quilts made by Lair, displayed on a 1920s hospital bed.

Since quilts are often made collaboratively, they evoke community. Bovey has held over from a previous exhibition a charming painting of a Mennonite quilting bee. It's displayed near a banner quilted by a group of hospital staff members in memory of the young-adult daughter of one of them, who died of cancer.

The uplifting memorial banner depicts the outdoors-loving girl on a beach. Bovey points out the piece's great variety of fabric textures, noting that quilters make just as many decisions about composition, colour, texture and visual rhythm as painters do.

The antique quilts include a community one depicting places in Myrtle (undated, perhaps made in the 1940s or '50s), a 19th-century "log-cabin" style quilt, a 1950s one made entirely of men's suiting fabric, and a delightful "crazy quilt" of erratic-shaped pieces of velvet and silk, in patterns ranging from stripes to florals. It was completed in 1882 by a skilled Manitoba needlewoman named Sarah P. Hamm, who embroidered and appliquéd on it.

A number of the vintage quilts are undated and made by unknown quilters. Bovey hopes the exhibition will bring some information about them out of the woodwork. She has a piece of advice if you've got an heirloom quilt: Interview old-timers in your family who can recall details about its making, and keep the "quilt genealogy."

Lair, the Gimli quilter, will give public demonstrations at the Buhler Gallery on Nov. 2 and Dec. 7 from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The free gallery is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and weekends from noon to 4 p.m.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2011 G7

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