Showcasing the work of some of the country’s premier contemporary quilters, the “Quilt National” exhibit, which opens Tuesday at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, takes the traditional image of what a quilt looks like and tosses it out the window. These quilts stretch the boundaries of what quilts can be, moving them from the realm of utility into that of fine art.

“These are not the typical patchwork quilts that Grandma used to make,” says curator Deborah Corsini. “Quilters today are much more sophisticated in how they compose their quilts. Some of them are still using patchwork, but it’s more abstract. The quilts in the exhibit are spectacular examples of the current artistry.”

Bound to tradition through the three-layer design of top, batting and backing, that’s where the similarity to the quilts of old ends. Artists use a variety of quilt-making means including digital photography, custom fabrics, stitching, embellishments and patchwork to create visually stunning, texturally rich designs that give a respectful nod to the tradition while re-imagining the parameters of the craft.

“Somewhere in the late-‘60s and ‘70s, people began to appreciate quilts in a different way,” Corsini explains. “They were utilitarian objects, but people started experimenting with them as art. There are still people who are making beautiful utilitarian quilts and there are hobbyists who just enjoy the process, but artists have expanded the vocabulary of making quilts.”

Originating in Ohio, the “Quilt National” is a traveling, juried show. From more than 1,000 entrants from the United States and 22 other countries, a jury selected 85 quilts. In its only West Coast appearance, this portion of the exhibit—a small collection of quilts is touring separately—brings together the work of 46 artists, four of whom are from Northern California, including Bonnie J. Smith from San Jose.

“Quilting is different than painting, but it’s every bit as artistic as other mediums,” says Corsini. “I’m blown away by the creative capacity that these artists have. There’s always something new. They’re always pushing the envelope of what quilting is.”

Quilt National
Feb. 14-April 29
San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles