By Brenda Gael Smith
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In my previous life, I was a lawyer. Pursuing my passion as a textile artist beckoned, however, and so I “retired”—from practicing law, that is. Since then, I’ve been working with the exhibition committee of The Quilters’ Guild of New South Wales, Australia, and the international exhibition tour of the Twelve by Twelve International Art Quilt Challenge. My next challenge was to try my hand at curating an exhibition myself, so I put out a call for entries with the theme “Beneath the Southern Sky.”
Take a look at the southern hemisphere through the eyes of some of this special exhibit’s artists. Conceived as a traveling exhibition, all works were required to be 16˝ x 40˝, oriented vertically like a banner. A relatively high number of pieces (30) could be exhibited in a fairly small space, and the uniform size would create a cohesive display.
Artists would be challenged to work in that unusual space. Although I did not accept three-dimensional or delicate work that couldn’t be packed in a suitcase, I deliberately eschewed the traditional, three-layer definition of “quilt” in my call for entries. My goal was to showcase the rich medium of textile art and have the selected works demonstrate a diverse range of techniques and materials.
With such a title theme, I fully expected to receive striking landscape, seascape, and skyscape works inspired by the beauty and wonder of the natural world. To my delight, some artists also interpreted the theme in ways that addressed people and social issues or had deeply personal stories.
Debra DeLorenzo’s own shibori fabrics, for instance, inspired thoughts of Antarctica.
“My quilt is a comment about how even our most pristine environments are under pressure from pollution,” she explains. “Living in New Zealand, we are promoted as being ‘clean and green,’ but in reality we are just lucky to be underpopulated. We still have issues with pollution, and need to get serious about fixing them.”
As I selected pieces for the exhibit, a distinctive, underlying color story emerged.
The exhibition opens with bright oranges, denoting drought and the desert, as in Dianne Firth’s Dry Valley.
“The landscape around Canberra, where I live, is comprised of rolling hills, river valleys, isolated mounds, and flanking mountain ranges. In my work I try to capture the feel of this landscape in an abstract composition rather than produce a literal image.”
Dianne chose colors to represent the red-orange soil, which was exposed after the native grasses died during the severe drought Australia experienced for more than a decade.
New Zealand appears in green and blue. Slice of Heaven is Alison Laurence’s interpretation of the surfing beach Anchor Bay, north of Auckland, where her family goes for holidays. Her image was influenced by the stylized woodcuts made by Australian artist Margaret Preston in the 1920s.
The dusty earth tones of remote Australia appear in a painted quilt by Helen Godden, inspired by a month-long camping adventure with her family.
“In the desert, the sky is so clear,” she says. “The stars seem so close, and so beautiful to watch. We lay there spotting shooting stars and pointing out the different constellations to our daughter. We felt warm and safe, with a huge mass of solid rock and earth and warmth and history below us, and a vast layer of cool, clear, sparkling sky above us.”
About the challenge, Helen adds, “I liked working in the narrow, small format. It helped my concept of a slice through the earth, the sky, and the thin layer where we live in between.”
Jenny Bowker turned inward and depicted a long-ago memory.
“The Hills Hoist clothesline is an Australian icon. You put the washing up with wooden pegs and wound the hoist high to catch the breezes. In high wind, the clothesline would whirl around quite fast. Like many Australian kids, my two daughters discovered the joy of whirling on the clothesline. My daughters remember the time they both got onto our clothesline, and as they spun, they got closer and closer to the ground. When they dropped off, they realized that the central supporting post was horribly bent. They were in deep trouble—especially since they blamed it on the boy down the road.”
Jenny’s quilt was inspired by a photograph by Marc McCormack, although she skewed the original image to fit the challenge format. To obtain the right perspective, she photographed her own clothesline at the required angle and traced her picture. Jenny is pleased with the result, especially having captured what she calls the sense of “unholy glee” on the girls’ faces.
The exhibit ends with images of the close of day, monochromatic black-and-white works like Kay Haerland’s Looking South. The West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand is wild, with a very small population and a unique fierce beauty.
Kay grew up in New Zealand, and she says, “I wanted that eerie, almost mystical feel of land, sea, starlit sky, and reflections. Add the Southern Cross star constellation, and you have my inspiration.” I am honored that more than 70 artists were intrigued by the theme’s possibilities and submitted such high-quality textile works.
From modest beginnings, this project far exceeded my expectations and certainly broadened my horizons.