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Looking and seeing: Bellevue Art Museum

Controlled Crazy Quilt, Indiana, 1970s, Bellevue Art Museum

I was ravished by a museum experience yesterday inspired equally by patient handwork expressed through order, and wild improvisations of color, texture and pattern. The Bellevue Art Museum has two shows that, taken together, touch the heart and overwhelm the rest of the senses. Friend and artist Martha Worthley was in town and we went together. Martha is a painter, brilliant colorist and dedicated seamstress. She is one of my favorite people to share an exhibition with because she likes to look and look and talk about things as she goes, like me. She grew up in Rhode Island with a family of antique collectors and brought that knowledge and experience to Gather Up the Fragments: The Andrews Shaker Collection.

Spool Rack, Mt. Lebanon, NY ca 1870, Andrews Collection, Bellevue Art Museum

The exhibit takes up the second floor galleries and showcases over 200 objects  from the Shaker sect, collected as its membership began to dwindle in the late 19th and early 20th century. Shaker furniture, simple in lines, lovingly crafted and designed for best use, is beautifully represented here as well as paintings of ecstatic visions, bentwood boxes and other daily objects. Context is given by exhibit design, labels and by the incremental effect of seeing the objects, photographs of their makers and such things as a loom for weaving the cotton tape that had many uses, or the tool used to tease apart flax fibers that would then be spun into thread and used to weave or knit clothing and other day to day textiles. It’s a lovely self-contained world on the second floor.

One of our favorites, with a unique color palette and energizing bow-shaped, fluffy ties that danced across the surface of the quilt. That center wheel just spun. 1940s Alabama. Photo by Melissa Peda.

Bold Expressions: African American Quilts from the Collection of Corrine Riley is a cannily installed collection of over 50 quilts that come out of the vernacular tradition of improvisational quilt making. Even symmetrical, rigorously pieced quilts are full of invention. Martha and I walked from room to room repeatedly having our minds blown by American quilt traditions influenced by textile traditions, brought from Africa by slaves and internalized by their descendants. The sight lines within the galleries are terrific for framing a single quilt from afar so that in the overload of color and pattern the formal aspects and overall effect of its composition can be seen. Up close, that tended to fall apart for me, as I was drawn into the color, the idiosyncratic piecing and how placement and manipulation of familiar quilt pattern blocks created energy, emotion, tension and excitement.

Martha kept catching me out, seeing layers of interconnecting pattern, when I was focusing on a single layer of pattern within the work. “Spider Webs and Stars,” she said in front of the first quilt we spent time with. It took me a few moments to see the stars and I might not have, up close, if she hadn’t called my attention to it. I used to think that the way I saw the world was a little broken, but now I know that it is simply my way and is the very thing that sometimes lets me see things that no one else notices, or allows me to make unique connections visually or intellectually.

About halfway through the galleries Martha turned to me and said, “I kind of feel like crying,” something I’d been feeling myself, and within five minutes I was. This happens to me when surprised by beauty; it kind of catches hold and works on me.

I didn’t take photographs and my favorites are not featured on the website or that of the Mingei Museum, which originally put together the exhibit, but there is a terrific Flickr set taken by Megan Connor taken at that museum. You can see Spiders and Stars in all its pink glory, and many more. The exhibit is up at the Bellevue Art Museum into October. Don’t put off going, as you will want to have time to see this show more than once.

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