A new art installation at the Virginia Quilt Museum rivals the quilting skills of grandmothers and home ec students alike.
Each of the 177 small quilts in the “Inspired by the National Parks: Celebrating 100 Years” exhibit are available for viewing at the museum in Harrisonburg. The textile masterpieces, handmade by artists all over the world, were designed to portray a particular national park — from the mountains of Yosemite to the valleys of Shenandoah.
The grand array of fabric art is the brainchild of Donna DeSoto, a 60-year-old quilter and curator of the traveling exhibit.
“They’re not just your grandmother’s bed coverings,” she said.
Mrs. Desoto led the quilting challenge to create national park-themed art after her successful call for Beatles-themed fabric art a few years back. She said she started issuing challenges because, although quilters enjoy giving away blankets and making people feel comfortable, ambitious artists just wanted a more difficult task.
“We push ourselves past making just your run-of-the-mill baby quilt,” said Mrs. DeSoto. “I was just picturing quilts with all these national parks The thought of that gave me goosebumps.”
For each of the country’s 59 national parks, artists produced three quilts. Quilters were allowed to interpret the different aspects of a park with absolute creative freedom, resulting in an array of techniques as broad as the subject matter.
“It’s hard to believe they’re all quilts. Some of them, the artists painted a cloth and then added stitching into it that sort of turned it into a quilt,” Mrs. DeSoto said.
Gloria Comstock, a curator at the Virginia Quilting Museum, mounted the quilts in order of the location of their corresponding national parks, which display the beauty of American landscape, she said.
“It’s like a kaleidoscope,” Miss Comstock said. “You go in one room, and it’s floor to ceiling with these quilts, and you can see how the landscape of the country changes.”
Though the quilts made their Virginia debut Tuesday, they also form the centerpiece of a community art show Saturday at the museum from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The show will include local art inspired by Shenandoah National Park, a park ranger’s presentation about the history of the National Park Service at St. Stephen’s United Church, and live music by local artist Mike McCray.
At a 3 p.m. reception in the museum, guests will be able to talk with the artists and Mrs. DeSoto about pieces in the gallery. She said visitors should leave with a stronger desire to see the landmarks of the U.S. for themselves.
“I hope that it will encourage people to take a closer look at our national parks, maybe to visit more of them,” said Mrs. DeSoto. “Several people, since seeing the quilts, they told me that they replanned their entire vacation this summer so that they would go to the national parks.”
The quilts, which will be in Virginia until Sept. 10, have come a long way to get here. The nation first caught a glimpse of the blankets when they debuted at last year’s Quilt Festival in Houston, the biggest quilt festival in the world.
“It’s going to go around the country, this is just beginning,” Miss Comstock said.
The next stop for the exhibit is Kirtland, Ohio, and then Illinois, Oklahoma, Indiana, Utah and beyond. However, Mrs. DeSoto already is gearing up for two more challenges for quilters, including one regarding some of Washington, D.C.’s monuments.
“The current project is called ‘Inspired by Elvis.’ We are depicting various songs that Elvis Presley made famous and also different aspects of his life They asked me to do my next project focusing on national parks sites in the D.C. area,” Mrs. DeSoto said.
For more information about the exhibit, visit www.npscentennialquilts.com.