Quilting is rapidly moving from folk art to fine art and Sheryl Gillilan is deep into tiny stitches and fabric scraps. Though she continues her day job as executive director of the Holladay Arts Council (she will retire this fall after some six years of delivering diverse arts opportunities to the community) quilting is her first love and Gillilan spends many spare hours making quilts and winning awards for her efforts. She says that she sees inspiration for quilt ideas everywhere – tile floors, rugs, graphic and modern art, landscapes and architecture.
Gillilan’s friend of 30 years, psychiatrist Dr. Roxanne Bartel, practices is medical director at Huntsman Mental Health Institute in Salt Lake City but makes quilts during leisure time by first dyeing her own fabrics and creating her own color palettes. Like Gillilan, she keeps those finished fabrics stashed “as an artist keeps tubes of paint.” Her “straight-line piecing and solid hand-dyed fabrics are foils to Gillilan’s exacting circles and jubilant stripes and dots,” a press release informs us, “that celebrates the strength of contrast, in all its manifestations.”
Three related works by Roxann Bartel: “Pink Day,” “Pink Dusk,” “Pink Night”
“I always loved the functional idea of quilts but that you could also put one up on the wall as art,” says Gillilan. “My house is filled with quilts; all the beds, the couches, all the walls have quilts.” The artist believes quilting has been underrated because it’s been “a woman’s art. I love that it’s getting the recognition it deserves as an art form. Everywhere. Quilting is a multi-billion-dollar industry. The Gee’s Bend quilters [of Alabama] came up with these modern quilts with no training. People are finally starting to understand that quilting is an art form.”
Gillilan appreciates the actual fabric that goes into a quilt. “I like the visceral sense of it. I travel and go to the quilt stores and buy there. Half the fun of shopping for fabric is being out of town and seeing what other shops carry. … I consider collecting fabric like collecting paint tubes. My quilts are not, in the parlance, matchy matchy. I pull fabric out of my stash like a painter will make their own palette. I design my own quilts, for the most part, so it depends on my mood, on what color palette I want to work with. I like diversity and changing color palettes, that’s what keeps me interested.”
Bartel, a quilter for more than 25 years, also considers quilts to be fine art. She studied painting in college, and while experimenting with painting on fabric, made the transition to quilting as an art form. She hopes you will view the work in their show through that lens. Although neither of the women have formal degrees in art, “they have honed their skills as quilters through the friendly ricochet of contrasting design concepts and critiques,” a press release explains.
Quilting is a method of stitching layers of fabric together that can be traced at least to medieval times. The stitches are usually based on a pattern or design and the earliest quilting, dating back to the 13th century, was used to make bed covers that often became family heirlooms. Gillilan, for example, knew her great-grandmother only through her quilts – quilts that were preserved for the family by Gillilan’s grandmother.
Quilts can also carry messages: An article in National Geographic relates that African American slaves may have used a quilt code to navigate the Underground Railroad. Quilts with patterns named “wagon wheel,” “tumbling blocks,” and “bear’s paw” appear to have conveyed secret messages that helped direct slaves to freedom.
Although quilting can just use a basic running stitch or backstitch, each stitch has to be made individually to ensure it catches all the layers within the quilt. Quilting has a domestic history: some were made by necessity, while others marked life occasions, a birth or wedding.
While tied to quilting, patchwork is a different technique that involves sewing pieces of fabric together to form a flat design and is associated with using up scraps of fabric or extending the life of clothing. But, as Gillilan does when she travels, many historical quilts use specially bought fabrics and are made for pleasure instead of from need. There also was once a tradition of military quilts sewn by soldiers while posted overseas in the second half of the 19th century.
Standouts in the show at Finch Lane include the two quilts that were started by one of the friends and finished by the other. Each began a quilt, gave it to the other who added to it, and the first friend then quilted it. “Neither one of us could have created those quilts ourselves and they are stronger because they had two people with different styles working on them. How can my style add to the quilt and make it better without consulting with the other quilter?” says Bartel of the enterprise. “The process of trying to have the piece wind up as integrated and not [manifestly made] by two people pushed our boundaries very successfully,” she adds.
Bartel uses both cotton and silk in her work – the silk comes from repurposed kimonos that she buys from Japan and re-dyes. “This series has been more abstract than anything else I’ve done. It is based on a four-patch design. Four squares put together into a block and then making multiple blocks and putting them together into a design.” She uses bleach resist fabric, dyeing the fabric once to get the main color and then using a bleach product to put a design on that fabric and leaving it on for enough time for the color to come out and then rinsing it.
“Quilts arose out of painting,” Bartel says. “I started with oil painting, and painted for 10 years. Then I looked into quilting and went through a period of traditional quilting and then went into my own designs, abstract, landscapes and now much more abstract. Both her sons have large traditional quilts, as do Gillilan’s children. “It’s interesting. I started out as an artist doing painting, then experimented with quilting as a hobby, a craft, now I’m going back to quilting as an art form instead of as making a blanket. Sheryl’s evolution is very similar. People all over the world are taking traditional crafts and making them an art form. There was a period of time where I was learning the craft, the sewing skills and such and now I’m pushing that in different directions as more of an art form. Keeping some of the traditional components: three layers, stitching, but I wonder if I am going to keep all of those traditional components as an art form? Sheryl keeps going forward with her work and I with mine but will we keep all the components?
“People frequently don’t understand the time commitment involved in making a quilt,” says Gillilan. “60 hours of quilting and 30 hours of putting it together. People see the prices and say, ‘Wow.’ If it were a painting nobody would blink an eye at that price, but people don’t realize the time that goes into it. Artists don’t get rich but most of us are artists because we don’t know how not to be artists.”
Gillilan discovered this art form in her early 20s, but got serious about it 30 years ago when her daughter was born and she quit her job and made a quilt for her. She began quilting in earnest during that time. “I’ve always loved fabric and I learned to sew clothes as a kid and I’ve always been attracted to fabric. I love the feel, I love the design. Roxanne and I conceived of the show idea two and a half years ago and knew we would have to make some of the ideas in our theme and worked for 18 months so we could apply for the show and then worked for two and three years – quilts are not fast. Art quilts are pretty heavily quilted.” The quilting was done on her home machine and the quilting sometimes takes longer than getting the piecing together, Gillilan says.
“I am glad if I can contribute to the beauty of the world. I do whimsical things sometimes and it makes me happy,” Gillilan says. She references Miss Rumphius, a children’s book by Barbara Cooney that has been around for 40 or 50 years. The titular character asks, “What are you going to do to make the world more beautiful?” “My answer,” says Gillilan, “is I am going to make quilts.”
Sheryl Gillilan & Roxanne Bartel: Juxtaposition, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Sep. 21. Artist reception, Friday, Aug. 18, 6-9 pm.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.