'Quilts' That Leave Tradition Behind

THERESE MAY is giddy about her latest discovery. "Look at this," she grins, waving a small plastic squeeze bottle. "It's full of acrylic paint."She bends over her latest work, "Cat Eyes," a wild collage of fabrics, thread, paint, glitter, and buttons being assembled in the garage of her downtown San Jose town house. The squeeze bottle allows her to literally draw with the paint directly onto her work. "I really like this texture a lot," she says. ve been wanting to do work that's more embellished, and at this point I'm more interested in painting on the quilt rather than sewing things on." Art quilt, wall hanging, collage, or painting, whatever you choose to call her work, you can't call it boring. Although it defies description, May's work has been partially responsible for taking quilts out of Grandma's bedroom and onto the walls of museums and galleries all over the country. Using the simplest definition of a quilt as her base, May pushes the boundaries of a traditional American craft toward an artistic vision uniquely her own. A finished quilt may have borders within borders, created from a fabric edge, paint, or even heavy "rug braid" stitching. Often she leaves the loose threads of a finished stitch to roam over the surface of the work, creating another layer of texture to tease the senses. Her works weren't always this bold, however. A painter by training, May was first inspired to try her hand at quilting more than 20 years ago, after being impressed with quilts made by her ex-husband's mother. May leapt into quilting on her own, following no rules and taking no advice. The idea of painting on one of these projects never occurred to her, until one particularly disappointing quilt made her think, "Why not?" "I started out just putting little dabs of paint on it, but then I got bolder," recalls May. "Then I made a mistake, but I kept going, and so big areas were covered with paint, and that excited me. Before this I'd been struggling between wanting to be a painter and wanting to do quilts, so it was great to be able to put the mediums together like that." May isn't the only artist who is doing new things with quilts, but her pieces possess a kinetic quality, a hard edge that removes all sentimentality from the quilting tradition, while managing to preserve a certain inherent whimsy. Maybe it's her figures: fish, amoeba-like creatures, fighting and biting cats and dogs and other, unidentifiable animal motifs that fill her work. "My work is starting to get lighter in tone, and it's exciting," she says. "I like to think it's parallel to my own personal growth, and that maybe I don't take life as seriously as I once did. I like to think my work reflects how I feel about myself and the world, that we should all just laugh a little bit and enjoy."

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