The most powerful art is the kind that makes you feel something — even if that something is immense sadness. I did not expect to feel like that at a quilt show.
Yet that’s exactly what I found at the “Pathfinders: New Territories,” a national juried art quilt exhibition at the Southern Utah Museum of Art in Cedar City.
This is not your stereotypical quilting. This is art quilting, where the pieces are more likely to warm the right side of your brain than your cold feet. They form abstract designs or even painting-like scenes on par with some of the plein air landscapes displayed near them at SUMA, the official art museum of Southern Utah University.
The paintings come from the recent “Chasing Light” event, where local and visiting landscape artists painted “en plein air” on location at SUMA and at Cedar Breaks National Monument during the first week of July. I had a chance to see a few of the painters at work that week so it’s fun to visit the exhibit and see their completed pieces.
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Many of my favorite local plein air artists are represented in the show but I have to admit the painter that is really captivating me this time around is Michelle Condrat from northern Utah (though she’s represented locally at Authentique Gallery of Art and Design in St. George). And, according to the SUMA docents, I’m not the only one attracted to her work. Apparently she’s been the talk of the exhibit.
Condrat’s dynamic style manages to be both exciting and serene. Her distinctively broad brush strokes lend a geometric elegance to her colorful paintings. And a strong sense of composition enhances the graphic design elements of her work.
On my first visit to SUMA this summer during the Utah Shakespeare Festival, I was initially drawn in by the plein air paintings while mom, who was visiting from Idaho, was immersed in the art quilts. She read every word of description for each of the 33 quilts selected for the “Pathfinders” show. When I returned the following week on my own, I discovered the allure myself.
The diversity of artists is great. While there are many from Utah, 31 different artists are represented from 16 different states. And their styles are even more diverse than their geographical locations.
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I found myself drawn to the colorful abstraction of Erika Carter’s “Chit Chat Jive II,” the boldness of Debra Goley’s “Agave Sundance,” the brilliant design of Anne Munoz’ “Pathways II” and the striking composition of Linda Anderson’s “Juja,” which won Best of Show.
While I’ve never previously thought of hanging quilts on my wall like fine art paintings, I would do so with a number of these pieces, including Yunhwa Jang’s lovely “Ocean Breeze,” which uses a traditional Korean patchwork style called Jogakbo to create a playfully tranquil geometric abstraction. Another favorite was Bonnie Smith’s “Before & After,” one of a number of quilts inspired by nature.
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The show’s title seem to inspire some of the artists to depict refugees in their work. Lea McComas’ “Displaced” shows 13 figures, including a few children, trudging their way through the wilderness. Nancy Lemke says her “Migration 2” shows “courageous and often anonymous people, moving forward to an unknown place that hopefully will value and nurture their gifts.”
St. George quilter Susan McBride Gilgen’s “The Red Shawl: A Tender Mercy” even acknowledged the uniquely Utahn refugee story of the pioneers who crossed the plains from the Midwest to settle in what would become the Beehive State.
My favorite refugee-oriented piece was the deeply moving “A Place to Lay My Head” by Deborah Fell, which places refugee images on fabric that has the appearance of refugee clothing. This is how she explained her piece: “The clothing on their backs tells the story of their hardship and heartache — it is stained, tattered and has evidence of humanity in its content. The blood road leaves its trail of inhumanity as these refugees seek safety in a different country.”
I definitely did not expect to find a message about the international refugee crisis while visiting a quilt exhibit. But I did and it became one of the most moving experiences I’ve had with art since I saw Brazilian documentary photographer Sebastio Salgado’s “Migrations” exhibit in 2001 in New York City. Sadly, 16 years later the refugee problem is even worse than what Salgado portrayed in his show. And most of us live day to day without ever giving a second thought to our less-fortunate brothers and sisters in places like Syria and South Sudan.
This is why the arts are vital to society. I might have gone that entire week without thinking once about the millions of displaced people around the world. But these quilts made me stop and remember them. They inspired me to remember the privilege and blessings I enjoy here and to do more with my own talents to bring light to the refugee plight.
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My talents lie in writing. I have the ability to reach out to those of you reading these words. Now it’s my turn to ask each of you to think about the talents and means you have that might be used to help our fellow human beings — these mothers and fathers, these innocent children who no longer have a place to call home.
“Pathfinders: New Territories” will remain on display until Aug. 26 and “Chasing Light” will remain through Aug. 19 at SUMA, 13 S. 300 West, Cedar City, at SUU’s Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts. Visit suu.edu/pva/suma/ or call 435-586-5432.
Email reporter Brian Passey at email@example.com or call him at 435-674-6296. Follow him on social media at Facebook.com/PasseyBrian or on Twitter and Instagram, @BrianPassey.
Tempting: A brief glimpse at the other arts events tempting me this week.
· Otherwise and These Final Hours in concert at 8 p.m. July 21 at the Firehouse, 1476 W. Sunset Boulevard, St. George. $20-$25. Visit SmithsTix.com.
· Poetry Under the Stars at 7:30 p.m. July 22 at the Kayenta Center for the Arts, 800 Kayenta Parkway, Ivins City. $25. Visit KayentaArtsFoundation.org or call 435-674-2787.
· GrooveSession in concert at 10 p.m. July 22 at Bit and Spur Restaurant and Saloon, 1212 Zion Park Boulevard, Springdale. $10. Visit BitAndSpur.com or call 435-772-3498.