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Stitches in time

Festival quilts mix historic, modern

LOWELL -- I knew a quilter whose basement was filled to bursting with airtight tubs packed with fabric she hoped someday to use. Her dreams may have been bigger than what she could accomplish, but the dreaming was half the fun. Like other hobbyists, quilters are a passionate lot, and this weekend they'll converge on this city rich in textile history for the Lowell Quilt Festival.

The festival features exhibits and events at more than 15 venues, including a show of ``art bras" at the Tsongas Arena, which at least ought to be amusing. I visited three of the larger art quilt shows.

``Blending the Old and the New: Quilts by Paul D. Pilgrim" at the New England Quilt Museum is the smartest and most sophisticated of the three shows, a joy at every turn. Pilgrim, with his partner Gerald R. Roy , ran an Oakland-based textile and interior design firm until his death 10 years ago. An artist with a highly developed sense of design and history, Pilgrim delighted in finding antique blocks -- fabric sections pieced together but never finished into a quilt -- and incorporating them into his own quilts in a manner that honored the original work and placed it in a refreshing contemporary context.

Pilgrim did this simply, by throwing off symmetry or mixing patterns together that never would be seen side by side in a traditional quilt. Look at ``Double Four -- Patch On Point," which does both: Pilgrim used old Amish four-square blocks of stripes, plaids, and florals. But he didn't fill the quilt with them. There are also blocks of black, stitched to look like four-squares, against the deep red background. The blocks all fit on a grid, but there's no clear pattern to where an Amish block will go and where a black one will. That unpredictability draws the viewer in.

``Dutch Sampler" features gaudy Pennsylvania Dutch blocks that date to 1880. The bold pinks, brassy yellows, and lurid reds mix it up over the surface in several patterns: basket, star, log cabin, and more. Pilgrim didn't hesitate to cut or truncate an antique block to use it to his own ends. Here, while patterns don't match, lines within one connect to lines in another, building up to a wonderfully odd, higgledy-piggledy whole.

Going national
A good art quilt demonstrates innovative technique and a keen aesthetic that embraces art history, quilt history, and contemporary art. The two juried art quilt shows at the American Textile History Museum and the Whistler House Museum of Art draw from a pool that probably includes both amateurs and professionals. The results, as is often the case with juried art exhibitions, are wildly variable.

``Quilt National '05," organized by the Dairy Barn Southeastern Ohio Cultural Arts Center , is the big US competition for art quilters, held every other year. The best pieces in the show prod the edges of the medium; the worst are hokey or too heavy-handed with social commentary (Susan Shie's hippie-dippy ``Peace Mama Pie" is both), getting points for technique but falling flat on content.

Jan Myers-Newbury's brilliant ``Homage to Albers" is one of the best. Josef Albers was the king of color theory; his ``Homage to the Square" series of paintings set squares within squares of contrasting tones. Myers-Newbury makes a grid of dyed squares within squares. Dark streaks from her dyeing process waft across the surface like seaweed, tossing shadows up against the warm light of her colors.

Other treats: Elizabeth Brimelow's two-sectioned ``Fakenham Fen" , which depicts a furrowed field fanning toward us. Each plowed row dances with layers of translucent white paper and silk, cut into abstract shapes. In ``Japan, April 2003" Miriam Nathan-Roberts uses photo-transfer technology to blow up an image she shot of individually wrapped goodies at a Japanese market. The illusion of depth is decidedly unquiltlike, but the grid pattern of the stacked inventory, in bold yellow and black, links it to traditional quilting.

Crazy with color
``Art Quilts at the Whistler III" is organized by the Whistler House Art Museum, the Lowell birthplace of James Abbott McNeil Whistler. Applicants from 38 states and seven other countries sent slides. There's deeply witty and formally rigorous work in this show; there are also many quilts by artists so besotted by color -- without really understanding it, as Myers-Newbury does -- that it drowns out any good qualities a quilt might have. Again, there are strains of saccharine sentimentality.

Standouts include Petra Voegtle's ``Greed," a small, satiric portrait of avarice personified: a long-nosed, purse-lipped woman with narrowed eyes. Voegtle drolly ``drew" her subject with shades of sickly green dye and stitches. Leesa Gawlik brings quiet tones and a Zen-like simplicity to ``Rice Field," a simple grid of black and brown-dyed fabrics accented with mild horizontal zig zags in other fabrics.

The Lowell Quilt Festival is today through Sunday. For more information, go to www.lowellquiltfestival.org.

Blending the Old and the New: Quilts by Paul D. Pilgrim
At: The New England Quilt Museum, 18 Shattuck St., Lowell, through Aug. 13. 978-452-4207, www.nequiltmuseum.org

Quilt National ’05
At: American Textile History Museum, 491 Dutton St., Lowell, through Sept. 3. 978-441-0040, www.athm.org

Art Quilts at the Whistler III
At: Whistler House Museum of Art, 243 Worthen St., Lowell, through Aug. 31. 978-452-7641, www.whistlerhouse.org

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