Quilts are happy things, born of nurturing instinct and creative impulse. Even the humblest materials can yield a special result.
Times have changed those, from their simple domestic purpose. Most quilters today make them for display. And for some, quilting is a competitive sport.
The winners of one of the most prestigious competitions in the United States are on display at the Dunedin Fine Art Center. "New Quilts from an Old Favorite from the National Quilt Museum" in Paducah, Ky., is an annual traveling show with contemporary interpretations of a traditional pattern. This year's pattern is Sunflower. It became popular in the 1920s and evolved into 28 variations over the years, all using the conventional block in which fabrics are pieced together to form a pattern within a small square, then joined to other squares to create a larger pattern.
The point of this competition, which attracts hundreds of entries, is to use that traditional pattern only as a starting point or inspiration, then just let loose. I'm not a quilting trend watcher but have seen many past shows from the museum, and two decorative and design elements seem to be popular: a preponderance of shiny beading and glittering metallic threads, and pushing the quilt design beyond its square or rectangular border. I wasn't crazy about some of the bling, but in general, the 18 quilts are stunning, as they always seem to be in this contest.
The first-place winner, Gypsy Caravans, is a collaboration between Claudia Clark Myers of Duluth, Minn., and Marilyn Badger of St. George, Utah. You can see its exuberance in color and design in the reproduction here. What you can't see are the texture and details, which is true of all these quilts and why you should see them onsite. This one's an engineering marvel and takes flamboyance to the edge. Were the faux gemstones necessary?
The beading didn't seem gratuitous in the third-place winner, Leaning on the Fence, by Sharon V. Rotz of Mosinee, Wis. They are used in the central pod of the stylized flowers set against an olive-colored picket fence and turquoise sky. I loved the way she creates the illusion of pierced leaves, appliqueing the olive and turquoise fabric onto the dark leaf forms for a see-through effect.
My very favorite is the fifth-place Sunflower Sutra by Helena Scheffer and Marion Perrault, both of Montreal. It's so painterly from a distance and the colors so subtly pieced, even when eyeballing it closely. The flower is set against a brilliant blue background of hand-dyed fabric (many quilters dye their own fabric). The seedpod is a beautiful spiral of little discs quilted with a tulle overlay and surrounded by a fringe of brown fabrics that are attached only at the base and flutter slightly. Yes, a kinetic quilt.
Finalist Martha DeLeonardis of Katy, Texas, gets the unofficial 3-D prize for 3-D Sunflowers, with leaves and petals made of fabric fused with a bonding agent so they can be bent and molded away from the background, itself an interesting choice of black and white pieces forming "rays" that go from light to dark.
Winner of the unofficial prize for the illusion of 3-D (and maybe my next-favorite quilt) is Graffiti, Sunflower and Bricks by Bill and Judy Woodworth of Gering, Neb. The quilt she designed and put together and that he painted is the coolest I have ever seen in this contest, stylizing the flowers with comic book cartooning and pop art inspiration and bright, bold colors. Across its center, "sunflower" is scrawled, graffiti-style.
Patricia Hobbs of Macomb, Ill., is another finalist for her Trickster in the Garden. It's designed as three horizontal sections — sky, flower field and earth — but it's too busy and the sky doesn't work for me. The best part is the dirt composed of small hexagons of fabric and a crow standing in it. Here's where beading is perfect: Big lumpy ones in gray and black are sewn on (or "sown") as seeds sought by the bird.
The best use of fabric belongs to Ann Horton of Redwood Valley, Calif., who used roughly textured, brilliantly hued Guatemalan fabrics to make a gentle political statement in Southern Borders. She hand-quilted much of it so as not to stretch the fragile fabrics, a rarity when quilters use machines for elaborate backgrounds and stitches. That, too, is a statement, of solidarity with the Central American women who weave by hand.
No Forwarding Address by Theresa Reeves of Oberlin, Kan., is the most narrative of the group, a tale of displacement told by three abandoned mailboxes. With a curvy, Thomas Hart Benton background and a surround of sunflowers, the scene doesn't seem especially desolate, but a sense of gloom and sadness pervade the quilt that frames the scene in a black border and uses a subdued color palette in the blocked background.
This one grew on me: Navajo Summer by Karen R. Watts of Houston. I don't have an affinity for Southwestern style or colors, but its intricate design won me over, looking from a distance like a Navajo rug and up close like a jigsaw puzzle devised to invoke insanity.
Quilting at this level is a lot of work. You can get a headache studying the stitching alone. But these quilts all exude "Fun!" Maybe, more accurately, joy. Like quilts, it's a word that can encompass a full range of life experiences.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.