Quiltmaker Pioneers Improvisational, Exuberant Patterns

Nancy Crow's quilts are not the kind of quilts you might find in your grandmother's attic.

''Nancy Crow: Improvisational Quilts,'' an exhibit of 33 art quilts at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, is an exuberant, colorful collection, expressing the artist's joy in working with colors and fabrics without the overwhelming regularity (and sometimes tediousness) of traditional quilting.

''Quiltmaking has its own history of techniques that are frankly obsessive, unrelenting and too time-consuming for most people or just too tedious for today's hurried-up lifestyle,'' writes the Baltimore, Ohio-based artist. ''As a child, I loved the processes of cut-paper work and gluing cut-outs onto another sheet of paper. It follows that I loved cutting shapes out of fabric and piecing those shapes together. As I developed greater sophistication in creating forms, I longed for a way to work that did not involve rigid pattern-making.''

Crow began her artistic career weaving, which she studied for her master of fine arts degree. But upon seeing a particularly vibrant antique quilt, she was struck by the beauty, boldness, and craftmanship of this particular piece, which was a black, green, and red Bear's Paw design. Her love - and affinity - for quilting grew as she spent time with quilting groups and began her own quiltmaking during the 1970s.

Today, she is known as an innovator and pioneer in this increasingly popular field, using the quilts as canvases to express emotions, just as in other more ''recognized'' forms of art.

While some of Crow's works do appear to be carefully planned like traditional quilts, her method for piecing them together reveals the improvisational quality of her quilts. ''... I cut a shape and pin it up on my great white void of a work-wall. I react!'' Crow explains. ''I cut another shape and pin it up. I don't like it, and I throw it away. Without hesitation, I cut another shape and another and on and on, pinning and trying and moving shapes around.''

The exhibit at the Renwick includes quilts from four different series. The ''Linear Studies'' series is variations on pieced strips. The wavy lines are accented by the stitching (done by other quilters), giving the quilts texture and added definition. The ''Color Blocks'' series plays on the basic ''one-patch'' design in quilting, giving more emphasis to the interplay between Crow's vibrant hand-dyed fabrics.

In the ''Bow Tie'' series, Crow departs even further from traditional quilting; some quilts are one huge ''picture'' composed of irregular shapes, stitching, and unusual color combinations. Other ''bow tie'' quilts, produced earlier in the series, are more regular in pattern, composed of blocks and diagonals.

''Chinese Souls'' is perhaps the most intriguing series. It was inspired by an event Crow witnessed while visiting China as an exchange artist in 1990. Crow saw about 60 teenage boys, bound in heavy ropes, being loaded onto trucks to be taken to their executions for petty crimes.

''The bull's-eye embroidery and hand- quilting represent the ropes tied around the soul, and all of the colors represent the individuals,'' Crow explains.

Crow seems to be trying to view the circular ''souls'' from different perspectives. In ''Chinese Souls #5,'' the swirls are grouped in 25 blocks of 16: many souls from a distance. But ''Chinese Souls #10'' studies only four ''souls''; the black, white, and red swirls are so large that only one complete swirl fits onto the quilt.

* ''Nancy Crow: Improvisational Quilts'' is on display at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery until Jan. 1. The exhibit was organized by independent curator Penny McMorris.

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