Museum opens doors to Reilly’s fabric life
History is on display at Vermont’s Bennington Museum, but I came away with a lasting impression of the work of a modern-day fabric artist.
Judith Reilly of Brandon, Vt., shared space in the museum’s same hallowed halls as the famous Civil War quilt made by Jane Stickle in 1863.
The Stickle quilt, responsible for the Dear Jane quilt craze all over the country, drew me to the museum on a recent vacation. It’s on public view only once a year because of the fragile fabrics.
Lucky for me its annual outing corresponded with an exhibit titled State of Craft, in which Reilly’s “Edge of Town,” a small piece of delightful fabric art, appeared.
The exhibition, which closed at the end of October, featured more than 125 objects by 86 Vermont crafters, including master artists, emerging artists and key individuals throughout the more than 50-year time frame of the studio craft movement, circa 1960-2010.
Reilly’s work clusters a set of whimsical houses on a foreground of jumbled spikes that form undulating curves. She describes “Edge of Town” and many of her vividly colored pieces as “catawampus” because they are architectural scenes but quite lopsided.
This element in her designs developed after a trip to Spain in 1995, where the ages-old buildings seemed to lean on each other with no evenness about them, she explains.
“It was as if they had a spirit, a life, an energy, a story of their own,” Reilly says.
In the museum gift shop, I found post cards of her other art pieces and giclee prints for sale. Giclee refers to a reproduction process that prints the image on acid-free paper through a digital and archival process.
On her website, http://www.judithreilly.com, I was able to view all of her work and learn more about her.
Previously a winner in major quilt shows in the early 1990s, Reilly found the competition to be a “stifling experience.”
“Although comparing technical skills often pushes us to do better, mostly I found that I was trying to figure out what was the trend, on the cutting edge, and that just isn’t me,” she says.
Since then, Reilly has moved from quilt contests into fine art venues, exhibiting at galleries and through arts organizations, a change that brings a different audience and a distinct level of appreciators (translation: buyers).
“This exposure has dramatically changed my work … a huge paradigm shift,” she says.
Some of her original fabric pieces were offered this past summer through the new Artisan’s Shop at the Shelburne Museum near Burlington, Vt., and all of them sold. She plans to have more art available there this coming summer. Reilly also operates her own gallery where she lives in Brandon.
Still, she acknowledges the importance of her early quilt training some 35 years ago: ” I am deeply grateful for the technical skills” acquired from pattern drafting and the piecing process.
At one time, Reilly traveled as an instructor in her art, but no more. She devotes her time to creating, playing and exploring in her studio.
“I found that teaching was always taking me back to where I had been, and I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to be in the moment, always in the moment,” she says.
You won’t find patterns for Reilly’s one-of-a-kind designs, which start as doodling and progress to freezer paper templates. Hand-dyed fabrics — the majority commercially purchased — are pieced together, appliqued if appropriate and enhanced with acrylic paint “where it suits my purposes,” she says.
Fusing techniques are used sparingly, because she prefers to piece whenever possible. Stitching is mostly done on a 25-year-old Bernina 930 machine because a computerized version is not required, Reilly says.
As for subject matter, farms and barns recur in her work. Having grown up on a farm, which remains in her family, Reilly says “the idea of barns is deeply embedded in my soul.”
Her fabric renditions include “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Vergennes Red Barn,” and “Behind the Grey Barn.”
A series of winter themes is in the works at this time, perhaps influenced by New England’s longest season.
One of the elements in Reilly’s art that I find most endearing is the addition of a lone bicycle in fabric art pieces she’s created since 2005. The simple black outline resembles the symbol on universal traffic signs for bike lanes, and it’s fun to peer closely into each bright wonderland to discover its location. In “After the Storm,” I laughed to myself upon spotting the two-wheeler with a frosting of snow on the handlebars and the back tire.
When asked about the bicycles, Reilly says they represent the human element in her architectural renderings, otherwise absent of people.
“There is someone at home,” she says, “someone who loves the structure and wants to be part of it,” she says.
I find that to be the perfect touch.
E-mail Sherida.Warner @gjsentinel.com.