By Sherida Warner, January 7, 2012
Originally published at GJSentinel
Though she’s never pieced together a patchwork quilt of her own, Shelly Zegart of Louisville, Ky., is an expert on the role that quilts play in American culture.
As a dealer, appraiser and collector of quilts since the mid-1970s, Zegart’s personal collection hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. She advocates for quilt scholarship and helped found the Kentucky Quilt Project in 1980 and the Alliance for American Quilts in 1993.
For the past three years, she has been the executive producer and host of a nine-part documentary series, “Why Quilts Matter: History, Art & Politics.” The first episode airs from 3:30 to 4 p.m. today on Rocky Mountain PBS on the Front Range and the Western Slope. The series, independently produced and funded by the nonprofit Kentucky Quilt Project, also is available on DVD.
Her goal, she says, is to start a conversation about an art form that is “so much more than grandma sitting in the corner passing time.”
“Quilts are keepers of our history, as well as a way for women and men to express their political views and their artistic sides.”
Zegart’s documentary brings together academics, curators, savvy dealers and passionate quilt makers, noting that 21 million quilters are active in the U.S. today.
She also wants to show viewers how the industry is a major economic engine in the marketplace with almost $4 billion spent annually.
The series now is reaching universities, “and one of my goals is to engage a younger audience,” Zegart says.
So far, she has been delighted with the feedback. Quilters remark that they are proud to be part of this art form; non-quilters often express a newfound interest in it.
Well-known fabric artists such as Caryl Bryer Fallert of Paducah, Ky., and Ricky Tims of LaVeta, Colo., are among those featured in “Why Quilts Matter.”
It mentions Tims’ stardom as part of a Quilt Nation subculture, with the more-than-plausible possibility that an adoring fan would quickly bypass actor George Clooney to score a coveted autograph from the Caveman Quilter of Colorado.
Much discussion centers on how quilts have penetrated the barrier between craft and art and what makes a quilt museum-worthy, including an episode on the Gee’s Bend quilts, their rise to fame in 2002 and some of the controversy they caused.
The documentary tackles tough topics, such as the criteria that defines art, how quilts have been viewed because of their female origins and utilitarian nature, and the politics within the industry in which competing personalities and organizations vie for money and power.
The validation of women through quilts has been another motivating factor for Zegart in her tireless promotion of quilting as an art form.
In the series, Carolyn Mazloomi, a quilt maker and founder of Women of Color Quilters Network of West Chester, Ohio, describes quilts as “compelling.” “They touch people’s spirit,” she says.
In Episode 9 about “Quilt Scholarship,” Stacy Hollander, senior curator at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, says, “Quilts hold so much information — personal, national, international.”
“They reflect the pulse of every moment (of history) from multiple perspectives. It’s just remarkable.”
It’s Zegart’s belief that the beauty of quilts is in the freedom of expression.
The quilt world is diverse, she says, and is illustrated in “Why Quilts Matter” by works made from flour sacks, cigarette packs, beer cans, machine embroidery, longarm quilting, hand stitching, patterns and freehand designs.
She appreciates antique and contemporary quilts and recognizes how recent technology has changed styles from handmade to more machine-made examples.
“Technology is on the rise,” Zegart acknowledges, “but so is the hand-crafted movement. You have a whole generation of young people returning to craftsmanship whether that be woodworking, sewing or farming.”
“It’s all cyclical and balances each other out.”
One of the newest technologies, computerized machine embroidery, may be appreciated by some collectors who “enjoy the precision” produced in such manner, Zegart says.
“As a collector, I may not choose to spend my money on a quilt that was embroidered on a computerized machine, but that’s my choice.”
No matter what technique a quilter chooses, Zegart says, “I believe quilts can be viewed as art, and art comes in all forms and is made by many methods.”
That’s why Zegart made her documentary, to answer the question for anyone who still wonders why quilts matter.