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Fields of Fabric 

Art quilts capture tangible landscapes

Quilts are generally considered more of a craft than an art. But local quilters like Sheila Finzer are working to change that perception.

“Most people think it’s your grand- mother’s quilt,” she says, “but it’s not.” She continues, “I started out making traditional bed quilts like most people start out with, but over the years I have progressed to more artsy.”

That translates to a dramatic departure from pieced-together shapes in a predict- able pattern and subtle hue. Instead, fabric artists like Finzer paint their fabrics with dye, paints, or threads and quilt outside the lines.

The result is quilts that replicate complex landscapes, portraits or abstract notions. Last year, the grandmother (that part of the stereotype is true) from Terrebonne did a commissioned piece depicting Sunriver Marsh. Seen at a distance, it looks like a painting. From the soft lines of the sun- set-splashed clouds in the background to the sharp and plentiful blades of grass in the foreground, it’s hard to believe it was made with fabric, thread and a sewing machine.

While old-school quilters might scoff at these artistic interpretations of the genre, Finzer says the definition of a “quilt” used by most shows is pretty loose.

“It needs to have the three layers—the top, the batting and the backing—and some kind of stitching that holds the three together,” she explains. And, technically, her pieces fit that description. Because they are not required to be square, symmetrical, or any of the other things quilts so often are, Finzer’s pieces break the traditional mold.

One piece, “Sahalie Falls,” defies convention with edges that are square in some places, and rounded to follow the lines of rocks and hills in others. Parts of the landscape are strikingly representational, a combination of batik fabric and intricate stitch work bringing individual leaves to life. While in the background, she employs a more conventional piecing approach, letting rough rectangles stand in for tree branches.

“I had played around some with watercolor and oil painting, but never felt successful,” Finzer says. “I felt like I needed to go back to my fabric roots.”

Before she was a quilter, Finzer had an applique clothing business. Before that, she made wed- ding dresses for a living. So she’s not new to working with fabric to make something complicated and beautiful. She started quilting about 20 years ago, when she moved back to Central Oregon after a decade on the coast.

But Finzer’s history with the local arts community goes back even further. She’s been attending, in some capacity, the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show for 25 years. Now in its 39th year, the festival has seen tremendous growth. In its first year, Finzer says, the festival had about a dozen quilts on display. Now, its boasts upward of 1,300.

When she first started quilting, she just did pieces for friends and family. Now, she does work on commission and enters quilts in competitions. For the upcoming Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show, her quilted “postcard” won second place with its blend of artsy and more conventional approaches. She has also won a number of awards from the PacificWest Quilt Show, including the Viewers’ Choice Award in 2006 for “Welcome to Kodiak,” a photorealistic quilt portraying Kodiak bears in Alaska.

It’s all just further evidence of the growing art quilt movement. Finzer says momentum began to build in the late 1980s, when art quilts started winning awards at major quilt shows. In the decades since, this approach has gained greater acceptance, both in the quilting world and the art world, with quilts increasingly showing on gallery walls.

In Sisters, of course, they’ll be outside. But with the trend toward art, there’s a good chance it will look more like a dynamic landscape than an intricate blanket fort.

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