The Menlo Park Library has emerged as one of the MVPs of arts and cultural programming in the COVID-19 era, offering the public a consistent and diverse stream of virtual performances, discussions, classes and presentations despite remaining physically closed.
"Our storytime staff is interacting directly with children and families ... and our adult and teen events are getting higher attendance than ever, with several locals commenting that they’d never attended library events before, due to the local afternoon and evening traffic," Senior Program Assistant John Weaver said.
Now, the library is presenting its first virtual fine-arts exhibition: "Stitching California: Fiber Artists Interpret the State's People, Life and Land," available online through Feb. 15.
Visitors to "Stitching California" can browse through a gallery of art quilts arranged by category, including natural beauty, cultures of California, landmarks, and challenges facing Californians (such as climate change and the housing crisis). They can also click on individual works to read artist statements from each contributor, as well as use a guide for looking closer at some of the rich details. Additional enhancements include a musical playlist, printable coloring pages and crafts to try at home, and a puzzle.
What makes something an art quilt? On the "Stitching California" website, Studio Art Quilt Associates defines it as "a creative visual work that is layered and stitched or that references this form of stitched layered structure."
Art quilts, according to exhibition co-organizer and artist Jennifer Landau, celebrate the "wonders of fabric and color, fiber and composition. Any type of fiber -- fabric, paper, wool, plants, synthetics -- is a source of inspiration." While the form is rooted historically in traditional bed coverings, she noted, "the word 'quilt' is no longer adequate or appropriate for what this medium allows." Fellow organizer Holly Brackmann said she came to art quilting after years of experience in weaving and dyeing. "It is the freedom of expression, paired with the tactile qualities, that calls to me as an art quilter," she said.
The works included in the exhibition indeed represent a remarkable range of style and subject matter. Landau's own eye-catching "Painted Ladies," made out of felted wool and other materials, is her interpretation of the classic San Francisco vista from Alamo Square, with its stately Victorian houses. "The viewer's imagination," her artist statement notes, "must provide the hills."
Brackmann's "Pomo Basketry Adaptations" pays tribute to the fine basketry designs of the Pomo Native American culture while incorporating a personalized bright color palette.
"Fault Line," by Deb Cashatt and Kris Sazaki (the Pixeladies), uses found newspaper and magazine text printed on fabric to create an exploration of California car culture, while a red jagged line across the center symbolizes not only geological fault lines but also cultural divisions in the state, such as the north/south and urban/rural divide.
Susan Else's sculptural "Hope" shows a cracked-skin figure kneeling in a dry riverbank, cradling a seedling in her hand. The piece, according to Else's artist statement, began as a comment on California's recent years of drought, then developed also into a symbol of hope after the 2016 election.
Exhibition juror Karen Holmes (the Grace Hudson museum curator) recalled that she was initially concerned, with such a broad theme of "California" as a call to entry, that organizers would receive "an overabundance of California poppy quilts and not much else." While the iconic state flower does have a presence in the exhibition, she said she and fellow juror Katie Pasquini Masopust were pleased by the diversity of responses, "from simple admiration of California’s beautiful flora to biting political commentary." The categories emerged clearly from the works submitted, and while Pasquini Masopust, an art quilter herself, looked for originality, use of materials in excellence in technique, Holmes, from her exhibit-designer perspective, considered how pieces could best work together on a gallery floor and connect with a wide audience -- not just art-quilt aficionados.
"The idea was to build a well-rounded exhibit that addressed different aspects of the state and that could tell a compelling story," she told this news organization in an email interview.
Of course, it's impossible for a web page to capture the full experience of the physical exhibition, at which viewers can see the work in three dimensions and witness how they work together in one space. Nevertheless, the organizers said they're pleased with the way Exhibit Envoy has translated the show online, particularly the interactive aspects.
In addition the access to the exhibition itself, the library has scheduled a slate of live events including a Jan. 19 talk by Nancy Bavor, the executive director of the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, on the emergence of art quilts from the 1960s to today; a Jan. 25 presentation by Susan Burton, criminal-justice reform advocate; and a talk on the immigrant experience by acclaimed author and professor Francisco Jimenez on Feb. 11.
"Stitching California," Weaver said, "brings together art and history with an eye toward the social milieu, which is a perfect umbrella for the kind of programming we regularly offer."
Holmes said she hopes online viewers may be inspired to check out the physical traveling exhibit once the pandemic is under control, as well as gain an appreciation for art quilts as a medium and reflect on the "many realities" of California.
"I would like people to realize how many ways there are to look at things beyond one's own idiosyncratic view, and that those varied views taken together make up a richer whole and more complete understanding of one’s environment," she said.
The exhibition, as well as links to the accompanying library events, can be found at exhibits.exhibitenvoy.org.