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Enter ‘fairyland’ with Victorian crazy quilts

January 22, 2009 By Gwen Evans

Here we are surviving deep midwinter, mincing our way down icy sidewalks, fretting over heating bills, wincing at each new snowfall and wishing we could just hibernate beneath a stack of nice, warm blankets. Don’t succumb. I suggest coming out from beneath the covers to consider the quilt; not because it keeps us warm, but as an art form.

C.V. Allen, New York, 1883

Photo: courtesy International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

A lovely opportunity to do just that awaits at “A Fairyland of Fabrics: The Victorian Crazy Quilt,” which opens Wednesday, Jan. 21, at the Design Gallery, located in the School of Human Ecology. The show runs through Sunday, March 8.

Fairyland struck the public’s fancy in the late 19th century, and it found its way into everything from paintings, literature and theater sets to china patterns and quilts.

Fairyland was a dreamy, fluid and sensuous place. If you are familiar with the ethereal elves from the “Lord of the Rings” movies and their kingdom, you are deep in fairyland. Maxfield Parrish and Arthur Rackham are two well-known illustrators of that time that are still known today for their work.

Fabric artists used complex patterns, textures and rich, eye-popping colors to create this imaginary world filled with butterflies, dragonflies, woodland flowers, owls, water babies and crescent moons.

The exhibition curator is Beverly Gordon of the Department of Design Studies. Gordon has selected pieces with kaleidoscopic colors and rich fabrics that sparkle with beguiling images and embroidery. The quilts on display are from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection and the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The quilts will be accompanied by large-scale, detail photographs of the fairyland fabrics and motifs taken from the quilts themselves and from other period sources.

Gordon is the author of “The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Intimate Objects, Women’s Lives, 1890–1940.” Her research that informs this exhibit can be found in “Crazy Quilts as an Expression of ‘Fairyland’” in the journal Uncoverings.

The Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection (HLATC) is nationally renowned for its ethnographic textiles and fiber art. HLATC, a part of the School of Human Ecology, contains some 13,000 textiles and costumes representing countless eras, places and techniques, making it one of the largest university textile collections in the United States.

It was founded by Helen Louise Allen, a professor on campus from 1927–68. She was an expert in the history of textiles, and weaving and embroidery techniques, and using historical and anthropological perspectives in the study of textiles. She developed a private textile collection to support her teaching and research, and her collection eventually became the basis for the collection, along with her papers, artwork and photographs.

An opening reception for “A Fairyland of Fabrics: The Victorian Crazy Quilt” is planned for 1–4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25, with a lecture by Gordon at 2 p.m. The snow date for the reception is Sunday, Feb. 1.

Nancy Rose Marshall, from the Department of Art History, will discuss “‘Neither Substance Quite, nor Shadow’: Victorian Fairy Painting” at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 5, in Room 178 at the School of Human Ecology.

The exhibit is free and open to the public. Design Gallery hours are 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Wednesday–Friday.; and noon-5 p.m. Saturday–Sunday. Visit the Design Gallery Web site for directions and parking information. Free parking is available after 4:30 p.m. and on weekends in several campus lots.

For more information on the exhibit, call the gallery, 262-8815.