-Article originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Black Purl Magazine.

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Photo: Japanese Quilt Artist Fumiko Ohkawa dazzling interpretation of the log cabin quilt.

     As a first time visitor to the annual International Quilt Show held at the George Haye’s convention center in Houston, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but my excitement was palpable nonetheless.  Never mind, that I haven’t worked on a quilt since I was twelve.   A quilt show was exciting enough, but this was an “international” quilt show.  What, I wondered, does an international quilt look like?  Who are the major players in the “international quilt scene?”  How would the national or ethnic characteristics of the various quilt artists involved manifest in their work? 

The first piece I saw was a breathtaking quilt that seemed to speak directly to two of my questions: a brilliant 120 foot long quilt by Canadian artist Esther Bryan and many, many, friends.  The quilt entitled “The Quilt of Belonging” consists of 263 blocks each representing a different Canadian Aboriginal group or nation of the world that together form the fabric Canada’s cultural heritage.  Each square contains not only the cultural symbolism of the many ethnicities represented but also unique textile techniques and materials particular to their culture.  Northern Ireland’s block features Belfast’s modern day skyline worked in drawn-threadwork, surrounded by a more traditional looking drawn-thread shamrock border.  Canada’s indigenous Carrier Nation incorporates fur and traditional beadwork into their block.   Each of these diverse masterpieces are unified by a large black honeycomb background framed by a dazzling rainbow border.    

Most of the other quilts were a more conventional bed size but no less dazzling or thought provoking.  The winner of the Best of Show Award by Hollis Chatelain was titled Hope for our World, a painted whole cloth quilt with machine embroidery depicting children of the world approaching Archibishop Desmond Tutu in a purple tinted landscape as white doves flutter overhead.  This was one of several quilts acting as a symbol of hope amid the world’s current challenges; there were both AIDS and cancer awareness quilts, as well as an entire section dedicated to memorial quilts, including both older quilts and a modern quilt including hundreds of images of victims of the war in Iraq.  Others incorporated digital imaging technology and machine piecingand quilting into their designs.

I tend to think of quilting as a quintessentially “American” art form, and for the most part, the patterns, quilters and attendees tended to confirm the classification as an American craft.  Nevertheless, I was surprised by the large presence of Japanese quilters both exhibiting and present as vendors and visitors.  Some of the most breathtaking quilts for their intricate handwork and designs were the work of talented Japanese artists; several incorporated old kimono fabrics into their quilts and many caused me to see classic designs in new ways as a result of the artists’ studied attention to detail.  I am marveling still at the how artist Fumiko Ohkawa managed to transform the classic log cabin block into a dazzling kaleidoscopic mandala reminiscent of a rose window.

Despite the diversity of the quilts and vendors who sold fabrics and notions from around the globe, I was a bit disappointed by the apparent lack of diversity in the festival’s attendees.  The vast majority appeared to be middle-aged and middle classed white women.  The female to male ratio was so high that the convention center temporarily converted most of the men’s bathrooms’ to women’s bathrooms for the day.  A red curtained area with chairs and a TV was kindly provided as a “husband’s lounge” for those who preferred to steer clear of the fray while their wives perused the hundreds of quilts and vendors.  I know that the festival only offered but a glimpse of the international world of quilting today, but oh what a scintillating glimpse it was!

You can see images of the quilts discussed above and learn more about the Houston International Quilt Festival and other Quilt Festivals at:  http://www.quilts.org/

 To learn more about the Quilt of Belonging visit: http://www.invitationproject.ca/index.htm

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