A review of Bellevue Arts Museum's exhibition "Bold Expressions: African American Quilts," of more than 50 pieces from the Corrine Riley Collection. Through Oct. 7, 2012.

Share story

It’s the bold colors and creative designs that will first catch your eye as you walk through Bellevue Arts Museum’s show of quilts. But look closer. Spend time examining the stitching and tacking on these remarkable bed coverings. Be amazed at the levels of artistry captured in each.

The pieces, part of “Bold Expressions: African American Quilts” at BAM through Oct. 7, were made in the South between 1910 and the 1970s, mostly of secondhand fabrics — used or nearly worn-out work pants, dresses, suits, whatever the quilters had available.

They pieced together strips of cloth, or adapted traditional quilt designs. They backed their quilts with flour or rice sacks and old curtains. For batting they used such things as newspapers or baby blankets. The women were adept at recovering, re-purposing and recycling.

The three layers of each quilt had to be held together in some fashion if the quilt was to serve its purpose. Some women tacked it with knots. Others made complex patterns of simple running stitches. The dynamic surfaces of many quilts are achieved through the combination of the bold colors and shapes of the pieced fabrics with the contrasting tacking or stitching patterns. If you look carefully, you’ll note the artistry of the undulating quilting lines on geometric strip quilts.

The quilts in this exhibit (originally shown at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego) are all from the collection of Corrine Riley. As a student at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute in 1970, Riley was fascinated by the use of color and form in modern abstract paintings.

She began looking for everyday items that showed similar passion and expression. Quilts soon caught her eye, quilts in which traditional patterns were interpreted in unique ways, quilts in which the artistic vision included a refined sense of color and abstraction.

The diversity of quilts in her collection is enormous. A strip quilt made entirely of pieces of work clothes blends varied shades of blue, showing where pockets protected color during laundering and heavy labor bleached it out. A black and white “Egg Timer” quilt composed of triangles in a zigzag pattern creates a 3-D effect. A deliberately asymmetrical “American Flag” quilt has stars floating on the blue square. Some strip quilts use colors as vibrant as those in Rothko paintings.

Although these quilts reflect the individual taste and artistic sense of the women who made them, they are also imbued with the cultural and social history of the quilters. Here elements of African textile designs mix with quilting patterns of Anglo-American traditions.

The women who created these household goods could never imagine that someday they would be objects for exhibition. But their dynamic color combinations, bold patterns, and creative design decisions earn them a place in this and other museums.

Nancy Worssam: nworssam@earthlink.net