Last month, the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles celebrated its 45th anniversary. New Directions, the new exhibit created to mark the occasion, utilizes pieces from the museum’s archives as well as newly created works of art, and finally opened last week after an Omicron-related delay.
From a brazenly colorful floral-motif quilt created by an unknown artist in the late 19th century (and purchased in memoriam of museum founder Sylvia Moore), to painted cloth masks used during the pandemic, the exhibit showcases the museum collection’s stunning range while charting the evolution of textile art in America and the Bay Area.
“It was a collection of women who decided that quilts and textiles had a place in the art historical world, and that they were an art form that needed to be collected, preserved and cared for, for future generations to also have the same sort of care towards this art form,” says Shannon Knepper, the museum’s marketing director.
Because quilts have historically been crafted almost exclusively by women, often in groups, for the practical purpose of keeping families warm, these intricately appliqued fabrics were regarded as craft but not art.
A 2019 work by artist Mung Lar Lam entitled Ironing: Untitled – Wave at the Museum of Quilts and Textiles highlights how the overlooked art form has been dismissed as unimportant, or more specifically, as women’s work.
“Mung Lar Lam uses the art of performance and textiles to examine gender roles and the perception of ‘women’s work’ in public spaces,” Knepper says. “Exploring themes of social and sexual politics, her work combines the practices of traditional dressmaking techniques with the formalism of drawing, painting and sculpture.”
The pandemic forced the scrappy museum to adapt both to a renewed interest in textile and fiber arts, as well as a new inability to host audiences. While people in quarantine were rediscovering sewing, knitting, crocheting, embroidery and other domestic arts as a way to adorn necessary masks (or just to express themselves), the Museum of Quilts and Textiles could not allow patrons inside.
Despite being closed, the museum attempted to become even more accessible than before, hosting sewing workshops and rethinking the use of their lobby space. Artist residencies became digital, and the searchable online archive grew—along with the museum’s social media presence.
“I always say that of all the art mediums, fiber art kind of wins,” says exhibit curator Amy DiPlacido. “It’s just so in step with our daily lives. Everybody has a connection to cloth.”
Now finally available for public viewing after a month of abundant caution, Abby Holmes’s hand-painted and embroidered family of cotton COVID-19 masks are a haunting reminder of the ever-presence of the lingering virus. The collection, a set of three small masks painted with delicate pastel flowers, appears gentle and protective, almost maternal in nature—a small bit of comfort and safety during uncertain and tumultuous times.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Herman and Mark Schoffner’s series of hoods—dyed the alarming colors of the now too-familiar air quality index—resemble the striped bellies of poisonous frogs. The sensor-equipped, ice-dyed hoods simultaneously draw in viewers and repel them, communicating a clear danger and imagining the futuristic clothing people will eventually need to prevent inhaling toxic smoke.
Ironically, these commentaries on a world separated by smoke and contagion were once again locked away by circumstances that made them too dangerous to view in congregation. Their ominous view of a world that is still not yet post-COVID-19 only grows in potency as new variants emerge and a nervous California looks ahead to fire season.
For those unable to view the exhibit in person or who choose to stay at home as a continued precaution against COVID-19, the museum’s website now includes a feature called “Museum From Home,” which patrons can visit in order to experience the museum from the comfort—and safety—of home. While New Directions hasn’t yet become available as part of the “Museum From Home” collection of experiences, but past exhibits, like Inside Out: Seeing Through Clothing and Latinx Textiles & Texiltes Hispanos are available to view.
Through July 3
Museum of Quilts & Textiles, San Jose