Thursday, May 24, 2007

Ohio woman among premier art quilters in U.S.

BALTIMORE, Ohio (AP) - With deadlines looming, artist Nancy Crow worked like a smooth, efficient machine of creativity as she hurried to finish up a quilt.

She climbed and descended a stepladder at her studio in rural Fairfield County, pinning and re-pinning the strips of intensely colored cotton cloth, hanging on a wall, that were becoming the quilt Construction 84.

She had a conversation as she stitched pieces of fabric on her favorite machine, a Bernina 930 - what she calls the Rolls-Royce of sewing machines.

"I work intuitively on composition," she said over the whir of the device.

"I'm exploring. When I make a mistake, I have to rip it back out again."

Crow - among the nation's premier creators of art quilts, a genre growing in esteem and popularity - was preparing for a fall solo exhibition in a Philadelphia gallery.

And she had more on her plate.

She was helping to teach one-week workshops in the nearby Crow Timber Frame Barn, an Ohio mecca for many people who make art quilts.

In August, she'll lead a tour of textile art in Estonia and Scandinavia. In September, she'll conduct workshops in Idaho and Switzerland.

The whirlwind helps keep her at the forefront of the art-quilt movement, which writer Jean Ray Laury differentiates from much of traditional quilt-making as "personal expression - not a mimic of the ideas or designs or color preferences set down by someone else."

Vivid colors and bold, abstract images have propelled Crow and her work to the elite circles in the United States and worldwide.

"To me, she is the apex. There is no one higher," said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Snyderman-Works Gallery in Philadelphia, where the Crow exhibit will open Oct. 6.

Crow never intended to make fabric her medium.

In the late 1960s, she was working on a master's degree in fine arts at Ohio State University.

"I was going to be a potter," the 63-year-old said, "but I became allergic to clay dust, and I couldn't hack it anymore."

She tried weaving and started to see the potential of quilting.

"I'm a very direct person: I like to get from A to B pretty fast," Crow said. "Quilt making served my personality. When you make a mistake, you can see it and fix it."

She embraced the medium, founding or helping to found several organizations: the Art Quilt Network, a group of artists; Quilt National, a leading biennial exhibition organized at the Dairy Barn Arts Center in Athens; and the Quilt Surface Design Symposium, led each June in Columbus by an international faculty.

"There are not many people who I would say have altered my course of life, but she would be one of those," said noted quilt artist Eleanor A. McCain of Shalimar, Fla.

McCain, who took a class from Crow 15 years ago, learned discipline and creativity, she said.

"She gave me a tremendous sense of the possibility, the potential that was there. So, along with a set of boundaries, she also set me free."

Quilts by Crow are found at the Museum of Arts & Design and Museum of American Folk Art, both in New York, and the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington - where, in 1995, the creator had its first solo exhibition of art quilts.

The hundreds of quilts she has produced have come from her studio and teaching center, a large wooden barn renovated in the late 1990s by her husband, John Stitzlein, and their sons, Nathaniel and Matthew.

Prices of her quilts range from $8,000 to $75,000.

"If she had been painting for the last 50 years, there would be three more zeros at the end of her prices," said Hoffman, the dealer. "People wouldn't question it, without a doubt."

"I don't care if my work sells, and that frees me" creatively, Crow said.

"I taught myself to think in terms of line and shape. The fabric is my paint."

Her relationship with her medium is intense: "I love fabric. I looove fabric.

"It's so innate. When I come over here (to her studio), I feel like I'm a completed human being."

Jean Robertson, an art historian at the Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has known Crow for more than 25 years.

They collaborated on two books about her quilts.

Robertson, a curator at the Columbus Museum of Art in the mid-1980s, featured Crow in an exhibit at the Southern Ohio Museum in Portsmouth, which Robertson founded with her husband.

"She is drawn to patterns and repetition," Robertson said. "Of course, quilting is built on variations on a theme. When she gets an idea, she works it through series and permutations."

Crow begins with concepts and images - some noted in sketchbooks and some traced in her mind.

She then pieces a quilt, combining shapes and colors, and resolving problems of composition.

"That's what makes a good composition - how good your eye is," she said.

Construction 84 is based on observations of a railroad crossbuck, with the quilt showing hints of the "X."

"In this composition," she said, "it's all about breaking the X."

For the 90-inch-square piece, Crow - who dyes her cloth - chose 80 colors of fabric at the start.

"She'll pick a color and make every variation," Robertson said. "Her color effects are subtle and rich. She has colors that people who buy commercial fabrics couldn't duplicate."

Crow cuts pieces of fabric freehand with a small, rotary cutting tool that she wields with the precision of an artist using a pencil.

She marks specific sewing instructions and ships the pieces to her associate, Marla Hattabaugh of Scottsdale, Ariz. - who takes a month to hand-stitch a quilt.

Crow rises each morning at 5 to get to work.

What drives her?

"I want my work to be the best it can be before I die," she said. "I want to know inside my heart that I've given it my best shot."

A year from now, she will be featured in a solo exhibition at the University of Nebraska. Also in 2008, her quilts will be shown at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown.

Her beloved Bernina 930 certainly won't be turning rusty.

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