Denver museum spins fascinating story of textiles

This is a detail of a quilt titled “Reconstruction #20,” sewn by Lucas Samaras of New York City in 1977.

Visitors are invited to drop in at the Quilt Studio in the Denver Art Museum. They can quilt on a frame, design their own block, use embellishments and learn a variety of stitches.

“Winter,” by textile artist Kate Cox of Longmont, is displayed in the Quilt Studio. Cox is one of many area artists who will give demonstrations during the “Spun: Adventures in Textiles” exhibition, which runs through Sept. 22 at the Denver Art Museum. For details, hours and admission, go to

This tea cozy, circa 1875–1900, was crazy-quilted of pieced silk with silk embroidery in America or England. It is part of the “Cover Story” exhibit in the textile gallery at the Denver Art Museum.

It didn’t take long for an effusive Christoph Heinrich to place a positive spin on “Spun: Adventures in Textiles,” nine world-class exhibitions open for public viewing at the Denver Art Museum. Heinrich’s comments came during a sneak preview for the media that I attended recently.

“Spun,” which formally opened May 19 and runs through Sept. 22, “brings our textile gallery up to speed,” he proudly declared, adding that 7,500 square feet of former storage space has been freed up after 20 years. Heinrich is museum director.

Fourteen curators worked diligently to “put the fun in ‘Spun,’ ” he said, noting the diversity of the art on display.

I literally bumped into Heinrich during an elevator ride to view the textile gallery on the sixth floor of the museum’s North Building. After a brief introduction, it was apparent this man’s zeal for his work is genuine.

“I am really excited for this,” he said.

And for good reason. It’s the largest show ever staged at the Denver Art Museum. Textiles range from pre-Columbian weavings to modern fiber art, Navajo blankets to an examination of clothing in art and photography.

Drop-in thread and quilt studios offer collaborative projects with artists and creative groups. Visitors can interact with the textiles by contributing to an ever-growing crochet coral reef and adding blocks to a community quilt in the atrium, located in the museum’s Hamilton Building.

The tour began in the new textile galleries with the inaugural exhibit “Cover Story,” which includes fine tapestries, bed coverlets, ceremonial shawls and robes, and a crazy-quilted tea cozy among the collection.

That area also offers a Thread Studio where museum visitors can sit and try their hand at embroidery and other needlework. Displays of scissors and other types of tools used throughout history line the walls.

In the “Material World” exhibit, the focus turns to modern and contemporary art.

Recycled teddy bears, minus their stuffing, are transformed into a psychedelic rug with a Rorschach pattern. Fabric strips are sewn willy-nilly into an 85-inch by 87-inch quilt. Some of the pieces are fascinating and others, downright perplexing.

A wooden pallet was stacked about 4-feet high with bulging cardboard boxes that held old receipts tied with string and leftover, tangled balls of yarn dangling over the edges. Environmental art is how the curator described it, but I mused to myself how closely the junky jumble resembled the corners of my untidy garage at home.

Perhaps I could open a gallery of my own? Ah, but then, it’s all about the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?

My eye primarily was drawn to the most “quilty” piece in that exhibit: “Reconstruction #20,” the mismatched fabric strips sewn in a mishmash fashion in 1977 by Lucas Samaras of New York City. Similar to some contemporary quilts being made today, it was considered craft, not art, at that time.

“Curators devoted to craft didn’t exist when this was made,” explained William Morrow, the museum’s associate curator of contemporary art. “That craft aspect challenges the stigma associated with craft in today’s art, doesn’t it?”

That, of course, begs the question: Is quilting an art or a craft?

Certainly, the Denver Art Museum elevates it to a higher calling.

In the Quilt Studio, Jenna Madison, manager of studio and artist programs, was securing two quilt tops in frames for future visitors, perhaps members of local quilt guilds, to quilt them by hand.

Heather Thomas, owner of the nearby Wild Heather Designs gallery and studio in Denver, provided the tops. Thomas also will participate in artist demonstrations at the studio in September, when she will show “Quilting with Hand-Dyed Fabric” and “Sculpted Quilting.”

In addition to the quilt frames, Madison stocks tables and supplies where drop-in visitors can design their own quilt blocks, embellish fabric and try a variety of stitches. Examples of crazy stitches and other techniques and quilting tools are easy to access.

Also in the lineup of artist demonstrations are Kate Cox and Miriam Basart, who will share their contemporary textile art in July and August. Both women originally hail from Britain, though they now work together in Longmont.

That the museum is sponsoring such an extensive behind-the-scenes look at quilting practices today is as remarkable to me as its 17th-century painting by an anonymous Italian artist dubbed the Master of the Blue Jeans. The depictions of paupers in denim aprons and jackets provide documentary proof that a fabric so dear to Americans today had much earlier origins outside the United States.

I barely have touched the surface here of the “Spun: Adventures in Textiles” celebration of fiber art at the Denver Art Museum. I suggest you make it part of your summer plans.

Look for this quote on the wall of the Thread Studio; it’s most apropos.

“I quilt with stitches small and know a century hence, posterity will gasp and say, ‘How neat.’ “

— Myrtle M. Fortner, 
California quilter, 1934

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