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On Exhibit: American quilts via the Brazilian connection



The art of quilting had its origins centuries ago in the temperate climates of Africa, India, and Iran. But it wasn't until quilting reached cold New England in the 18th century that it really came into its own. Characteristics we typically associate with quilts--geometric shapes or lines of stitching that echo the patchwork--only developed as quilts started to be made in this country. Today most people consider quilting a folk art that belongs more to North America than to any other part of the world.

When Mary Dritschel, an Evanston resident, decided last year she wanted to put together an exhibit of quilts, she never thought about showing them in this country at all. She was headed for Brazil, where she lived for eight years. "Quilt making is not a cultural tradition in Brazil," she says. But she was eager to get some American quilts into a Brazilian art gallery, to expose the art community in Sao Paulo, where she had lived, to something new. She also just wanted to go back for a visit.

So she scouted out funding and asked quilters from around the country to submit work. Over the course of putting together the exhibit, she came across several local sources of funding, four Chicago artists whose work she wanted to use, and a gallery here that was interested in the exhibit. By the time the exhibit opened in Sao Paulo last November, she had changed her plans about showing it here; on February 28 "Quilting Partners" opened at the Northern Illinois University gallery on Superior.

Dritschel, a painter and photographer, first moved to Sao Paulo in 1978, when her husband's business took them there. She says Sao Paulo has some wonderful museums, and she wanted some of her artist friends in the United States to see them. So to get her friends to Sao Paulo without having to pay the expensive airfare, she organized a 1980 exhibit there of art by eight American women. In 1982 she curated another exhibit of American art in that city, and two years later she arranged to show the work of seven Brazilian artists at a Dallas art gallery. In 1985 she organized two simultaneous exhibits--Brazilian art in New York City and American art in Sao Paulo--which relied on airline-courier flights to transport both art and artists.

After Dritschel moved back to the States in 1986, she went back to visit Brazil four times in three years. She also joined an organization called the Sao Paulo/Illinois Partners, a branch of the national group Partners of the Americas, which does mostly social-service and educational work in South American countries. "I wanted to be around people who spoke Portuguese again," she says. The group also sometimes sponsors artistic exchanges, often bringing South American artists to the United States. When Dritschel came up with the idea of sending American quilts to Brazil, Partners of the Americas gave her a $5,000 grant. Dritschel eventually hunted down another $60,000 in funding, including an offer from the Chicago Artists' Coalition to fly the four Chicago artists represented in the exhibit to Sao Paulo for the opening.

When it came to choosing quilts, Dritschel had just one goal: diversity. "I chose a variety of quilts because the exhibit was going to Brazil and they had never seen this stuff before," she says. "I chose with an innocent eye. I had not looked much at fabric art before." The quilts she came up with do run the gamut: They're made of cotton, velvet, and old ties; one even has sunglasses and purses sewn to it. Some are abstract geometrics, and others are figures or landscapes made of pieced fabric. One is made of fabric covered with silk-screened photos and then cut into snaky, intertwining pieces. None of them is traditional.

"There are quilt makers in Brazil now who make more traditional quilts," says Dritschel. (She had a Brazilian quilt maker design the catalog for the show; the color separations were done in Chicago, and it was printed in Brazil.) But contemporary quilts--artist's quilts--are pretty much unheard of there. "This is one of the first times they've seen contemporary quilts. I feel like this show was very influential. It was history-making."

While Dritschel was trying to influence Brazilian artists, the four Chicago artists who were sent to Sao Paulo were busy experiencing the other side of the exchange: sightseeing, sketching, talking to artists in Sao Paulo and Rio. Jim Smoote was one of them. "Most artists are influenced by what they see," he says, and the opportunity to see what artists in another country were doing was one of the main reasons he wanted to be part of the show.

Rebecca Shore found inspiration in other Brazilian sights. "There were things that were visually interesting and different. These lush, abundant fruit stands, for instance." Christina Ramberg says what will stay with her most now that she's back in Chicago is the poverty: little boys selling shoelaces to restaurant patrons at 11:30 at night, and women and children sleeping on sidewalks, covering themselves with cardboard for warmth. "The houses looked like they were made of patchwork," she says. "Tin and cardboard pieced together."

"Quilting Partners" runs through April 21 at the Northern Illinois University Art Gallery, 212 W. Superior. The gallery is open 11 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday; call 642-6010 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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