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Exhibit explores American folk art of quilts

Looking at an American folk quilt is like being engulfed in a starburst of swirling shapes and vibrant colors.
/ Source: Reuters

Looking at an American folk quilt is like being engulfed in a starburst of swirling shapes and vibrant colors.

"Unfolding Stories: Culture and Tradition in American Quilts," an exhibition at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, features some of the best works of the rich tradition of quilting .

Jacqueline Atkins, the curator of the exhibition that runs from September 24 until December 1, and the author of several books on the subject, describes quilt making as "the true, great American folk art."

Many of the patterned quilts seem to anticipate Pop Art's fascination with geometric shapes, lines and repetition -- in some cases over half a century earlier.

Log Cabin, variation; Barn Raising, 1880-1890, by Anna Lay Park is an array of multicolored concentric cubes in a combination of different fabrics.

"They are really mind-boggling -- eye dazzlers comes to mind," Atkins said in an interview. "Looking at them if you didn't know when they were made you could say this is Pop Art."

But rather than compare the works to later developments of which the artists could have had no knowledge, Atkins likes to say that these women created their own distinct style and visual language.

"It was the women that started a whole art revolution on their own in fabric that only was found within the broader mainstream culture much later on," she explained.

The tradition, which reached its apogee in the 19th and 20th centuries, still has many millions of practitioners around the world.

Atkins said the quilts are highly collectible and the best examples have sold for close to $100,000 at auction.

As well as the stunning visual aspect of many of the quilts, Atkins said the careful observer can discern the threads of rich and multifaceted stories in the fabric.

"The patterns change and evolve and morph into different things over time," said Atkins. "Part of this is the cultures that are making the quilt."

The popular star pattern originated in England but exploded across cultures in the United States and took on perhaps its most lively expression in the African-American tradition.

"You don't get the classic star formation," she said. "You get a design called broken stars, or star puzzles, where you get different pieces of stars arranged in idiosyncratic patterns that are quite fascinating, so what's happening here is a cultural change."

The quilt show runs almost concurrently with another exhibition at the museum, "Inspired Traditions: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection."

It includes portraits, sculptures, weather vanes, paintings and furniture from the collection of Katcher, a retired radiologist and a folk art collector for more than 30 years.

"When I look at these pieces individually they are each among the very best of their kind and some are unquestionable the best of their kind," said the Fenimore's curator Paul D'Ambrosio, who has studied American folk art for 30 years.

D'Ambrosio prizes both exhibits, which come largely from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, for their connections to and insights into American history.