Quilt as Art Form : What used to be a craft involving bed covers has evolved. Exhibits will be staged at two colleges in the Valley.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Rebecca Howard is a regular contributor to The Times. </i>

Is it an art or is it a craft?

Two upcoming local exhibitions will challenge the long-held notion of quilting as a craft by showcasing the artistry and imagination that go into this ages-old tradition.

William Toutant, associate dean of CSUN’s School of the Arts, was so impressed when he saw quilt artist Rosemary Pedigo Ponte’s work in Massachusetts two years ago that he was determined to bring an exhibit of her work to the university.

“At first I thought, ‘Quilts? Well, OK.’ But when I saw them, I was absolutely stunned,” he said. “A lot of the arts have been looked down on as crafts, which is a pejorative term. What has been a traditional American craft--quilting--has been raised to an art.”


Ponte, who lives in Santa Fe and whose work has been shown internationally, said quilters of the past did not have the courage or forum to call themselves artists. “The quilts were made to be used, but the quilters were very artistic in their work,” she said.

Ponte’s quilts will be on display beginning Monday in the Cal State Northridge Art Galleries.

“In my quilting garden, I am bounded only by the extent of my own imagination and inventiveness. I want my quilts to be bright and beautiful, always pleasing to the casual observer,” said Ponte, who is descended from a long line of Tennessee quilters. “But beyond that, there must be something more--nuance, sensitivity, character and illusion. The more you look, the more you see.”

Coming from a tradition where quilts were used as everyday objects, it took Ponte some time to realize their artistic potential.

“I was a painter, and I realized you could be as expressive with fabrics as you can with a paintbrush,” Ponte said. “I am a proponent of quilts as an art form, not just as bed covers.”

Her inspirations range from modern art to nature. Her original designs are hand- and machine-pieced, but all quilting and applique are done by hand. Some of Ponte’s wearable art, including jackets that incorporate applique and other quilting techniques, will accompany the quilts in the exhibit. She said the modern designs of her work and of other quilting artists, who design their quilts for the wall, are being recognized as legitimate art.


“It’s a wonderful time in history for what we’re doing here,” she said.

Granada Hills resident Fumie Ono’s quilt-collecting hobby was disdained by her husband--until he read a Fortune magazine article highlighting the value of quilts.

“He had hated my hobby, then he finally realized that they’re an art,” said Ono, who has spent the last 20 years assembling her antique quilt collection.

Some of Ono’s 80-odd quilt collection--some pieces date to the early 1800s--will be included in the Valley Quiltmakers Guild’s fifth annual show tomorrow at Pierce College.

Ono purchased her first quilt for $35 in 1973 and has traveled the country collecting antique quilts. When she and her husband returned to their native Japan for a two-year stay in 1990, Ono displayed her quilts in four exhibits. She has written about her quilts for Japanese magazines, and a book on her collection will be published this fall in Japan.

“After I started collecting, I learned a lot about American history and culture,” Ono said. “Each quilt has a story. Most of my quilts are just like orphans--the quilts are like my daughters.”

Ono’s “orphans” originated as far away as Boston and Philadelphia and include quilts from Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana and Texas. The collection is diverse in patterns and fabrics. One cotton quilt with a chimney-sweep pattern in rusts, orange, greens and browns is believed to have existed during the Civil War. The quilt is flecked with blood, and Ono suspects it may have blanketed a wounded soldier.

Ono spent three years researching the origin of a signature quilt, a blue and white creation covered with signatures on its fan-shaped patterns. She traced the quilt to Newcastle, Penn., and found it was made in the 1930s.

Many quilts reflect the time they were made. A late 1800s quilt of Ono’s is made entirely of silk ribbons from cigar boxes. She has Depression-era quilts, where the tiniest scraps were saved and pieced into the stars or other designs. Often, flour sacks or feed sacks were used as fabric. One quilt was stuffed with old jeans and underwear, reflecting the hard times when everything that could be used was.

“In a quilt, I can see America’s origin, the American lady’s spirit,” Ono said. “I find a beautiful mind or soul in it.”

Contemporary quilts made by about 100 guild members also will be showcased.

Chatsworth resident Judy Leonard, president of the Valley Quiltmakers Guild, plans to display an Irish Chain quilt, which she made for her Irish husband. The king-size quilt, a blend of green, white and peach, grew so large that Leonard could not complete the stitching on her own. She sent the quilt with a friend who was friends with women in an Amish community in Intercourse, Penn. The women completed the hand-stitching for Leonard by working on the quilt intermittently over a year, in a barn, Leonard said.

Gayle Cyrus of Reseda is known for her recurrent use of chicken themes in her quilts. For this year’s show, Cyrus plans to show a wool quilt with flying chickens titled, “Poultrygeist.”

“I approach life with a sense of humor,” said Cyrus, who grew up around chickens in the San Joaquin Valley. “I always begin my quilts with a title and go from there.”

One of Cyrus’ past creations was made during the “Twin Peaks” television craze.

“I called it ‘Twin Beaks.’ It was a quilt with a farmer and his chicken. The farmer had this hook nose that was like the chicken’s beak,” she said.

Lisa Ann Carrillo of Woodland Hills also has a frequent character appearing in her quilts.

“My thing is witches. I do one quilt a year with a witch in the main scene. Last year I had a witch flying across the sky with the moon behind her,” Carrillo said. “This year there is this sort of devious witch sitting in the middle of a crescent moon.”

Carrillo, who has been quilting seriously for the past two years, first got interested after attending a Valley Quiltmakers Guild show.

“My perception was that quilting was a dead art,” Carrillo said. “Then I saw all these quilts, and I was flabbergasted. I realized that I was not the only person under 90 west of the Rockies who was interested in quilting.”

Although quilting enthusiasm has ebbed and flowed throughout history, it’s popularity resurged with the bicentennial, said guild member Jean Tolford. “Quilting began to die out in the ‘30s and ‘40s. In the 1940s, many women began working in factories because of World War II,” she said. “Then it came back.”

As well as expressing personal artistry, quilting today offers a support system of friends, much as it has throughout history, enthusiasts say.

“I know that if I moved someplace else I could join a quilting group, and I would have friends instantly,” Tolford said. “They’re just the nicest people.”

Many quilting groups, including the Valley guild, work on such project as Quilters for Others, where they make quilts to donate to the poor or homeless. Some of the quilters in the group donate time to working on quilt projects or with Girl Scout troops.

“Through our projects and through the show, we want to educate the public on quilting,” Carrillo said.

And perhaps change some attitudes on the subject.

“We would like it to be called an art,” Tolford said.


* What: Quilted Keepsakes V: A Quilt Show and Auction.

* Location: Pierce College Campus Center, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills.

* Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Auction at 1 p.m.

* Price: Suggested donation of $4 for adults, $2 seniors and children under 6.

* Call: (818) 883-5620 or (818) 349-8879.

* What: Beyond the Garden Wall: Quilts and Wearable Art by Rosemary Pedigo Ponte.

* Location: Art Galleries, Cal State Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge.

* Hours: 10 a.m. lecture, 7 to 9 p.m. reception Monday. Noon to 4 p.m. Mondays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Nov. 20.

* Price: Free. Parking $1.75 in student lots, free parking Saturdays.

* Call: (818) 885-2226 or (818) 885-2156.