by Nancy E. McCarthy
The word “quilt” comes from the Latin “culcita,” meaning a stuffed sack or mattress. A bed quilt is essentially a cloth sandwich with a decorated top, a back and filler in the middle. Early American quilts were strictly functional articles to provide warm covers for beds.
The Art Quilt Movement began in the 1970s and elevated quilts to fine art status, displayed on museum walls rather than on beds. This movement experienced a watershed moment in 1971 when a collection of mainly Amish quilts opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC titled Abstract Design in American Quilts.
At its core, the Art Quilt Movement has always been about recognizing quilt design as an art form rather than casting delineations between traditional, modern, functional or craft definitions.
Since 1982, when the Quilts=Art=Quilts exhibition began at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, the display has been a showcase of the most cutting-edge quilt artworks of the day. “The exhibition has evolved as the movement has evolved: at times testing the boundaries of quilt making and at other times nodding to the past with a reverence for the traditional,” said Davana Robedee, an artist and Schweinfurth’s program director.
Here is the work and the back stories of four regional art quilters whose contemporary quilts have been exhibited numerous times at the Schweinfurth. These artists continue to elevate the fine art of quilting.
Pat Pauly, of Rochester
Pauly, of Williamsville, moved to Rochester in 1981. She is a full-time artist who previously worked as a museum exhibition designer at Rochester and other Northeast museums until 2007.
Pauly garnered extensive knowledge of various media from her SUNY College at Buffalo art education degree and additional graduate level work at SUNY Geneseo, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and Cazenovia College.
“In 1980 I saw art quilts and was smitten,” said Pauly. “Though I had constructed textiles, this medium caught my attention for its versatility and power.” She has taught contemporary quilting and surface design since 2003, starting locally and eventually worldwide (as far away as Australia!).
Pauley has a distinctive and recognizable style in part because she designs and prints her own fabrics. She starts with a white natural fabric base such as cotton, linen or silk. Using thickened fabric-reactive dyes, she prints with silkscreens or uses rubbings and stencils or directly scrapes or draws dye onto the fabric. “I love that part. Printing is my zen place!” Pauly cuts and combines her fabrics to create an abstract composition similar to a painting.
Shop One on the RIT campus is a contemporary fine art, craft and design shop showcasing work by RIT-affiliated artists including Pauly. “Pat’s ability to eviscerate the traditional concept of a quilt and elevate it to an art form is heroic and ever inspiring. Her energetic and improvisational compositions are masterful,” said Wendy Marks, Shop One’s director. “Pat is also creatively fearless in that once a quilt is finished (fully top quilted and hemmed), she’ll block print or screen print additional elements.”
Pauly’s work was the subject of “Sew Me a Color,” a recent solo exhibit of her newest pieces at the RIT University Gallery. A previous highlight of her art career included designing and curating Quilts 20/20: Traditional Works/Contemporary Art at the Susquehanna Art Museum in Harrisburg, PA in 2015. That exhibit, which included one of her quilts, featured 20 traditional historic quilts from museum collections and 20 works from contemporary art quilt masters. More recently, one of her quilts was accepted into the prestigious 2023 biennial Quilt National exhibition at the Dairy Barn Arts Center in Athens, OH. The exhibit ended in September and the show is traveling to various museums and galleries around the country for two years.
The Quilts=Art=Quilts (Q=A=Q) show has accepted Pauly’s work over a dozen times including in this year’s 2023 exhibit [see sidebar]. While she has garnered other Q=A=Q awards, last year’s 2022 Surface Design Award for her “Unfolding Year” quilt is a particular treasure.
“Working in fiber art allows me the latitude of painting, with the joy of construction,” said Pauly.
Ellen M. Blalock, of Syracuse
Blalock grew up in Philadelphia and moved to Syracuse in 1981. A former journalist, she now creates art full-time. She has a BFA from Temple University and an MFA from Syracuse University but has been sewing since elementary school.
Quilting piqued Blalock’s interest after finding out from an aunt that she had ancestors who quilted. Sadly, these heirlooms were stolen. “This was the beginning of my quilting journey,” said Blalock. “Every stitch and quilt I make now is to honor my ancestors and those women quilters in my family.”
You won’t find Blalock’s quilts on a bed. Her art quilts are displayed on museum and gallery walls. Sometimes her two-sided quilts are suspended from ceilings.
Quilting is just one of Blalock’s mediums. She is a narrative artist who also works in photography, video, drawing and art installation. Her art tells stories about her own family and gives voices to marginalized people and communities that need to be heard and represented such as African American teen fathers, LGBTQ families, the deaf community, trauma and mental health in Black communities and refugees from Muslim countries.
Blalock’s quilts have been in museums from coast to coast: from The Colored Girls Museum in Philadelphia to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and locations in between such as the Iowa Quilt Museum. Locally, she has exhibited four times at the Schweinfurth Art Center: a solo exhibit of her narrative quilts in 2019 and in the group Q=A=Q exhibition, receiving first place awards in 2020 for “Middle Passage – America’s Legacy” and in 2022 for “Grandmom’s Hopes and Dreams.” Blalock is also the Schweinfurth Art Center’s first artist-in-residence thanks to a Creatives Rebuild New York grant. The grant provides income for Blalock and financial support for the Schweinfurth to collaborate on a project for two years.
“She is an amazing storyteller and artist, and we eagerly look forward to working with Ellen and the community on this exciting and important project,” said the Schweinfurth’s Executive Director Donna Lamb when her residency was announced in 2022.
Blalock has been inspiring people in the African American community to tell their family stories using photography, video and quilting which will culminate in a public exhibit sometime in 2024. Her working title is “Auburn’s Black Family Album.” “For several months, I am photographing families and events in Auburn for a book to be given to the Seymour Library in Auburn,” said Blalock. “I will have many photos printed on fabric and families can come to the Schweinfurth Art Center to make photo quilts.”
To learn more about the artist, visit ellen-blalock.squarespace.com.
Julia Graziano, of Manlius
Graziano, a former oncology nurse practitioner, grew up in Hudson and moved in 1983 to finish her nursing degree at Syracuse University. Graziano got married in 1987 and she and her physician husband moved to Manlius in 1993 after they started their family.
Graziano’s first foray into quilting was learning how to sew bed quilts. At the urging of a friend, she took a quilting workshop shortly after she attained her master degree in 1994 and was working as a nurse practitioner. She continued taking classes at local quilt shops and through the Towpath Quilt Guild in Fayetteville. “I developed a wonderful set of quilting friends whom my husband calls the ‘quilt people,’” Graziano said. After constructing numerous quilts following traditional patterns, Graziano became interested in contemporary art quilts. Now all the quilts she makes are of her own abstract designs for wall display.
In 2000, Graziano purchased a hand-guided longarm quilting (sewing) machine. This provided an enormous amount of throat space (the open window of space to the right of the sewing machine needle) to apply the top stitching that sews the quilt layers together. “I like to hand-draw the stitching lines I make, much like a painter makes a line with the brush or a sketch artist would make with their pencil,” she explained. The materials she uses are commercial or hand-dyed cotton fabrics, cotton thread and cotton and wool batting.
Graziano retired from nursing in 2008 and began quilting full-time. Career highlights include a commission from an interior designer in 2015 to quilt fabrics for a lobby banquette in The Marmara Park Avenue hotel in Manhattan; having a quilt in the 2016 “Circular Abstractions: Bull’s Eye Quilts” touring international exhibition which opened at the Muskegon Museum of Art in Michigan; and having a quilt accepted into the esteemed 2019 biennial “Quilt National” exhibition at the Dairy Barn Arts Center in Athens, OH.
Her work has been exhibited numerous times at the Schweinfurth winning some awards along the way such as Q=A=Q Juror’s Choice Award in 2017 for “Frameworks IV” and first place in the Made In NY 2023 exhibit for “Perplexed.”
Graziano regularly attends intensive workshops at the Crow Timber Frame Barn in Baltimore, OH. The Barn is owned by Nancy Crow, a leader in the field of contemporary quilt making. Crow and other esteemed artists provide instruction in quilting, sewing techniques, fabric dyeing, color, composition and much more. Graziano has extensively studied sewing design with Crow, surface design with UK artist Claire Benn and abstract painting and collage with painter/collagist David Hornung at the Barn.
Hornung is a big fan of her work. “Julia’s quilts radiate both warmth and energy,” said Hornung. “She composes them of many small fragments of color somewhat systematically, but always with unexpected turns and surprising variations. Paradoxically, they evoke both order and the erosion of order with thoughtful color sequencing always a central consideration.”
Graziano’s quilt “Step Up” is one of 42 contemporary art quilts in the March 2024 Color Improvisations 3 exhibition. The international exhibit, at the Museum Tuch + Technik in Neumünster, Germany, was curated by Nancy Crow.
Follow Graziano on Instagram @ graziano.julia.
Carol Boyer, of Syracuse
Fiber collage artist Boyer moved from Muncie, IN to Syracuse in 1976 for her husband to pursue a Syracuse University scholarship. Boyer, with a bachelor and master degree in art education from Ball State University, took a middle school art teacher position.
Boyer was already a self-taught quilter by then. One of her earliest efforts was a bed quilt made by following a pattern from a magazine. She was a fast learner and progressed to art quilts of her own design. “I do mostly wall work now,” Boyer said. Over the years she dived into other textile art such as fabric doll construction, designing and sewing school play costumes, hand embroidery and painting and dyeing fabrics.
Her quilt “Generations” was featured in Quilters Newsletter magazine in 1988 and also appeared in a book: Family Keepsake Quilts: Capturing Treasured Memories in Cloth by Vivian Howell Ritter. Boyer’s quilts have been widely exhibited across the United States. She is especially proud that one of her works was accepted into Houston’s prestigious International Quilt Festival in 1991.
Boyer has entered the Q=A=Q show many times and in 2022 received the Juror’s Choice Award for her quilt “Action.” Boyer also regularly attends Schweinfurth Art Center’s “Quilting by the Lake”: an annual quilting conference attracting participants from across the country and abroad for hands-on workshops led by distinguished fiber artists. “Carol’s success is her interest in learning. She’s never afraid to try new techniques,” said Barbara Vural, a retired art teacher and friend who owns and treasures several of Boyer’s quilts.
Boyer’s process begins with a theme and a cursory sketch. She will often create a series of quilts to thoroughly explore an idea – sometimes several works over several years. “I am greatly influenced by nature and the seasons,” she said. “I have ongoing series with the subjects of fish, insects, people, trees, water and rock formations, to mention a few.”
After her retirement in 2001, Boyer could quilt full-time and now mainly participates in regional shows. One recent career achievement was winning Best of Show for her quilt “Athletes” in the 2022 Associated Artists of Central NY fall show. Her prize was a solo show of 22 of her pieces hung for six weeks in winter of 2023 at the Manlius Library.
Follow Carol Boyer’s weekly blog at carolcre8.com.
The Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn provides creative opportunities and transformational experiences through the arts for all people.
The Schweinfurth is a longstanding proponent of quilts as a visual arts medium. One of its longest running exhibits, Quilt=Art=Quilts – first held in 1982 – is an annual juried art quilt show that attracts entries from around the world. Jurors select quilts based on overall quality of design, visual impact and originality.
Over the years, the Schweinfurth has become internationally known for its fiber arts programs. In 2003, the art center took over running “Quilting by the Lake,” an annual art quilt conference that launched in 1981. That, coupled with the growing reputation of the Quilt=Art=Quilts exhibit and workshops with acclaimed artists, has brought national and international attention to the Schweinfurth.
This year’s Quilt=Art=Quilts exhibit runs from October 28, 2023 to January 7, 2024 and features 72 art quilts from 69 artists – including Pat Pauly.
For more information, visit schweinfurthartcenter.org.