Written by Sheryl Nonnenberg
San Jose Metro, April 2016
The adage "everything old is new again" certainly applies when viewing the current exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. "Blanket Statements" is a color-saturated display of both historical quilts from the 18th and 19th centuries and the recent work of contemporary fabric designer Kaffe Fassett.
On view until July 3, the 20 new quilts and 15 vintage quilts present a wide range of technique and subject matter – a sort of visual history of this old and venerable medium.
The exhibition was created by the York Quilt Museum and Gallery in England and has been presented at two other venues in the United States. Items from the York Museum's Heritage Collection include silk coverlets from the early 1700s and hand block-printed cottons from the early 1800s. Kaffee Fassett, who was born and raised in California but has lived in England since 1964, is highly regarded in the world of textiles as a quilter, knitter, rug-maker and mosaic artist.
Museum curator Nancy Bavor explained that she learned of the exhibition while attending a lecture given by Fassett in Pacific Grove two years ago.
"I have long admired Kaffe's work – knitting, needlepoint, fabric design – and thought his work and this exhibit would appeal to our visitors," she says.
The show pairs an old quilt with one or two of Fassett's quilts, all of them created in response to the vintage piece. A quick look around the room reveals that the historical quilts are much more somber and subdued in color palette. This is largely due to the quality of dyes available at the time. What they lack in color, however, is more than compensated for in the incredibly intricate techniques they display.
One standout is a wonderfully detailed appliqued quilt from around 1860, entitled the "Red Manor House Quilt." Relying on a basic layout of a large central square (depicting the manor house) surrounded by outlying rows of squares that feature flowers, geese, horses and pinwheels, it is a delightful representation of a 19th-century household. And because of the uncommon treatment, appliqué, the piece is not only beautiful but rare.
In response, Fassett has created a quilt with a similar square design, but with eye-popping colors that almost require sunglasses to take in. "He has kept the format and the basic layout, but when executed in his brilliant fabrics, the quilt just glows," Bavor says. "Really, it glows!"
According to one biographer, Fassett is known as a guru in the world of color and textiles. Lore has it that he was first influenced by his mother, a frustrated artist who delighted in wearing marvelous patterns. After settling in Europe, he was introduced to knitting by a fellow traveler on a train. He took up the hobby and then discovered needlepoint. Soon, he was designing hand-painted fabric that took the textile world by storm. A deep love of color and pattern, influenced by travels to Asia, became his trademark.
"Color is the reason I make stuff, so that I can play with color, " he is quoted saying in an interview with Making Magazine. "It is the first and foremost consideration."
His response to Church Window (1825-75) – a quilt with small, busy prints all arranged in a hexagon – is to combine hexagons with small squares of polka dots, stripes and abstract flower shapes. Fassett, who was the first living artist to have a one-man show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1988, works with several textile manufacturers to create a range of fabric prints for the patchwork market. Although he began quilting just 15 years ago, he has achieved a worldwide reputation thanks to his innovative and distinctive designs. He travels the globe in order to gain new ideas and perspectives on color and pattern, which then find their way into his designs and books.
The museum has also devoted a room to some of Fassett's work in other media, like paintings and drawings. "Having the additional art works shows the breadth and depth of his artistry during a career spanning over fifty years," Bavor says.
The quilt makers of old joined together to pass the time, while creating functional objects that were aesthetically pleasing. Fassett has taken that collaborative spirit and, with his spectacular color and design sense, created objects of art that are a joy to behold.