Saturday, May 1, 2010

What is an Oregon Quilt?

This week, the Oregon Quilt Project officially commenced in beautiful Sisters, Oregon - home of The Stitchin’ Post and theSisters Outdoor Quilt Show. Sisters is situated in the heart of Oregon, and for over 35 years has been a center for quilt making activity. 

I’ve passed through Sisters several times on the way to Bend, and even stopped in The Stitchin’ Post once or twice, but I really haven’t spent much time in Sisters. This year will be my first time attending the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show. Hard to believe, right?

When Jean Wells Keenan opened her shop in 1975, it was one of the first quilt shops in the United States. She hung the first Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show the same year, showing just 12 quilts. Over the last 35 years, the show has grown to include 1200 quilts. The largest event of its kind, it draws as many as 30,000 visitors and brings an estimated $2.4 million to the area each year.

This year, the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show has a special reason to celebrate. Not only is it the show’s 35th anniversary, but later in the summer Keenan will be inducted in the Quilters Hall of Fame in Marion, Indiana. 

After 35 years as a fixture in the community, Keenan has not become the least bit complacent. When I walked in she was teaching a class at her shop. The class included people from all across the country. Later, she shared a quilt that she was determined to rework, even though it was already stunning. She just felt it had greater potential.

During our visit, Keenan was remarkably open to new ideas about how to improve her quilt. And being open is a quality she associates with the west coast. It’s something you can feel in the air in Sisters, a geographically wide-open place. It didn’t take much time for me to realize that openness and responsiveness to new ideas is exactly what led Keenan to become such a prolific artist and influential teacher. She really knocked my socks off!

After spending three amazing days in Sisters, I have to say I’mextremely impressed!! My head is still spinning. The experience of being in Sisters brought me back to one of the original questions I had when first considering the idea of documenting quilts in Oregon. 

What is an Oregon quilt?

Keenan’s masterpiece quilt, “The Wedding Garden” (above) is an Oregon quilt! She designed the quilt to commemorate her daughter’s wedding, which took place in the garden at their home. The overall quilt image is a landscape, featuring snow-capped, purple mountains, lush greenery, and abstracted flower heads constructed as varied New York Beauty blocks. 

The three mountains represent the Three Sisters, volcanic peaks along the Cascade Range that are all among the five tallest peaks in Oregon. Two of Keenan’s children had been married in that garden, and according to friends who attended the weddings, the garden was full of wildflowers. Although some of the flowers didn’t survive the celebration, the vivid memory of the wedding garden remained with Keenan. She wanted to preserve the memory in a quilt, and brilliantly translated her vision into a memorable, important quilt. 

In our first two documentation days we saw about 30 quilts spanning 150 years. When I first saw “The Wedding Garden” I said, “That is an Oregon quilt!” But there are many other quilts that represent Oregon and Oregonians in various ways. The first quilt in the door was a gorgeous mid-19th century red and green applique quilt with unusual borders, exquisite quilting, and provenance. We also saw two quilts that were finished just the day before the documentation. All of these quilts have reasons for being here in Oregon. They are all part of Oregon’s quilt heritage.

Oregon has some of the most incredible natural scenery, and that beauty is certainly present in our state’s quilts and quilt makers. On behalf of the Oregon Quilt Project, I’d like to extend a huge thank you to all the participants and volunteers in Sisters, particularly our gracious hosts, local volunteers and OQP core volunteers for a job well done! We are delighted to begin our documentation in a place with such a vested interest in quilts and quilt making. We look forward to returning to Sisters, and to visiting the many other intriguing places around Oregon in the coming years.

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