Modern Quilts Made Across International Borders

by | May 5, 2024 | Article, Research

When I first joined Kingston Heirloom Quilters in Kingston, Ontario, I was introduced to their oldest member, Phyllis Vanhorne. Since I lived near Phyllis, I sometimes drove her to our daytime quilt guild meeting. Phyllis was 96 years old then and had been quilting for about 74 years, so she had a great wealth of stories and knowledge. At first, I was interested in her early quilting years, when as a young bride in Wooler, Ontario in 1942, she was taught to quilt by local women from her church, stitching together around a large frame in her living room, making quilts for the war effort.

One day when I was visiting at her home, Phyllis showed me an image in a magazine of a quilt that she said she had made. It looked nothing at all like a 1940’s wartime quilt, and nothing like the traditional log cabin quilts that she loved to make in her later years. In fact, this quilt looked very modern. The magazine was turned back and folded to one page, and the photo was only about 2” square, but it was memorable because it was a very distinctive quilt.  Life-sized silhouettes of cats were appliqued on the quilt top. I asked her when she had made it, and she said simply, “quite a few years ago”.  Now this was just one of many conversations we had, along with chats about her rural life and family and making in the community, so I just tucked it away without thinking too much on it.

Some weeks later, when I was researching a different quilt on the website of the International Quilt Museum (IQM), I decided to check what quilts they had in their collection made in Canada. There, among the Canadian quilts, was the same image Phyllis had shown me. I was stunned!

The explanation provided by the IQM was that the quilt was made in Kingston, Ontario, Canada by Tony Berlant. When I looked up Tony Berlant, I discovered he is an artist in Los Angeles who paints and makes sculptures, not quilts. I was very puzzled. I set off to see Phyllis again to try to sort out this mystery.

To provide you a setting, Phyllis lived in the very same house for 70 years – an old Ontario farmhouse down a country lane on over 100 acres of land.  She proudly told me how it had been completely gutted and renovated just before they moved in, but that was 70 years ago.  The front porch had been closed in to become a sunroom, and that was where her quilt frame was set up, almost always since her husband died over 40 years ago. Her house was located in a very rural setting. In this original and humble home, there was evidence of a real simplicity of life; the most modern thing was a computerized Bernina sewing machine that she said cost more than her farm did 70 years ago.

On my next visit with Phyllis, she dug out a catalogue of a 1981 exhibition called ‘Artists’ Quilts’. It was through this catalogue that I discovered this fascinating project that Phyllis and other Kingston quilters had been involved in in the 1970’s, skillfully creating art quilts designed by Los Angeles artists. These quilts were such a contrast from Phyllis’ earliest experiences as a young bride quilting in wartime thirty years before that. How had this come to be? Thankfully, Phyllis had an extra copy of the catalogue, so I took that away and began to piece together this puzzle. 

‘Untitled’ – Charles Arnoldi and Margaret Rhodes and Margaret MacLean, International Quilt Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

From what I have been able to piece together, before the phrase ‘Art Quilt’ was even being commonly used, Ludy Strauss conceived of an idea to have artists that she knew in Los Angeles design quilts, and she would have them produced by quilters. Two quilts of each design were to be made – one for the artist to keep, and one for Ludy to put in the exhibition. But where were the quilters willing to do such work?

An article in the San Francisco ‘News Chronicle’, February 21, 1982, says:

“This unusual quilt-making process begins with the artist’s concept and ends in the hands of the quilter. First, the artist originates the design, usually through drawings and paintings. Then Strauss works with the artist, looking at early quilts, cutting the fabric and trying to make the arrangement work with the pattern of the stitching. It is important the stitching achieves the intended effect of the design, whether to be indiscernible or become a visually necessary part of the final composition. Most often, the artist arranges the pieces of the design on the background cloth. Then Strauss drives the material to Ontario, Canada, where she turns the project over to the quilter. Before Strauss found the quilters in Ontario, she searched across the country, contacting museums and well-known quilters, trying to find people who would be willing to sew the unusual designs. ‘Many quilters said they wouldn’t touch modern art,’ Strauss explained. ‘They wanted to stay with traditional designs and were afraid to try something new’. It was important to Strauss that the quilter commit to the idea of the artist and be conscious of the design while sewing. She said the quilters in Ontario were very receptive to doing the work, which can be extremely difficult and time consuming.”

Phyllis Vanhorne in the late 1970s engaged in hand quilting a quilt she had made according to a design by Craig Kauffman called ‘Untitled’ (Image from private collection)

Since that second visit with Phyllis about this subject, I have continued to investigate this story. Through the exhibition catalogue, I discovered the other women and one man in Ontario who had also been involved in this quilt making. Diane Berry, also of Kingston, had only been quilting for a few years when she was asked to quilt for Ludy Strauss. In fact, the ‘My Galaxy’ quilt in the collection of the IQM was made by Diane Berry. The edition of that design that was given to the artist, Tony Berlant, was made by Phyllis Vanhorne. Phyllis and Diane both had many photos in their photo albums of the quilts they made for this exhibition, some while the quilts were a ‘work-in-progress’. Phyllis had snippets of fabrics used for two of the quilts, and Diane still had the pattern for ‘My Galaxy’. These fabrics were not quilting cottons. Both women shared with me the challenges of a sort of synthetic raincoat fabric, silk, polyester and velvet, to name a few.

Fabric and stitching samples in Phyllis’ stash – from Craig Kauffman’s quilt ‘Untitled’ (Image – private collection)

After I began to put these pieces together, Carolyn Ducey of the IQM asked if I would assist her in interviewing both Phyllis and Diane, which we did together by video and phone in 2020. Phyllis was recorded on a Zoom call with Carolyn and Jonathan Holstein, the co-creator of the 1971 quilt exhibit at the Whitney Museum called ‘Abstract Design in American Quilts’. Jonathan knew Ludy Strauss and had written the forward to her exhibition catalogue. Diane was interviewed by phone. Along with these oral histories, copies of images from the photo albums of both of these women were forwarded to the IQM to be added to the files related to this exhibit. One photo even shows the quilters standing with Ludy Strauss, somewhere in Kingston.

The exhibition, ‘Artists’ Quilts’ opened in Los Angeles in 1981 after six years from inception to completion. After travelling to a number of different cities in the US, it arrived in Canada at the Agnes Etherington Museum in Kingston, Ontario in 1984 so that the quilters and the local community could appreciate the work and the artistry of this unique project. Ludy wrote in the catalogue introduction:

“Expert quilters who were willing to work on other than traditional designs were difficult to find.  However there were several master quiltmakers in Canada who met the challenge with fine spirit.  Margaret Rhodes has worked for the last six years encouraging others, keeping enthusiasm from flagging and producing exceptionally beautiful work.  Phyllis Vanhorne showed a remarkable ability to tackle difficult pieces with calm determination and make it all seem simple.  Diane Berry filled several quilts with her fine even stitches.  Margaret McLean joined Marg Rhodes for a virtuoso execution of Charles Arnoldi’s quilt.  These women, all of Kingston, Ontario, lead active and full lives, but still spent many hundreds of hours working on the sewing.”

‘Untitled’ by Craig Kauffman and Phyllis Vanhorne – International Quilt Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

One major puzzle piece is outstanding – how did Ludy Strauss come to meet these Ontario quilters? I have some ideas, but I am still working on putting these pieces together. And here are a couple of questions to ponder:

How does one nation’s art and craft influence another’s, particularly before the internet, and before the printing of hundreds of quilt magazines? 

How should a quilt be attributed? How do we reflect the designer, the maker, the quilter, or should we? Does it matter?

This research could not have happened without assistance from Diane Berry, Phyllis Vanhorne, Judy Adams whose mother, Margaret MacLean was also one of the quilters, and the Kingston Heirloom quilters who share their knowledge of the ‘team leader’ of the Kingston quilters, Margaret Rhodes. Thank you also to the International Quilt Museum for permission to share images of these amazing quilts.

If your quilt guild or creative organization would be interested in learning more about this exhibition and the incredible quilts that resulted from this collaboration, check under the ‘Events’ tab for information about booking a virtual presentation with slideshow.

This article is dedicated to my friend, Phyllis Vanhorne, who died on March 12, 2024, a day before her 102nd birthday. Thank you, Phyllis, for your generosity in sharing your quilting life.