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Art Review: “Quilt Bloc” at Ditch Projects

The group exhibition features quilts from the Springfield History Museum in conversation with quilt-inspired works by contemporary artists.

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The idea of a fabric based show had been in the air, says Laura Hughes. But it was an old photograph posted on Instagram by the Springfield History Museum—an image of people gathered around a quilt—that sparked the idea for “Quilt Bloc,” now on display at Ditch Projects until March 20. The exhibit was co-curated by Hughes and Krista Raasch. Both are members of the artist-run gallery and studio space at Ditch Projects in Springfield. 

Neither Hughes or Raasch have art in the show, but then it is common for members at Ditch to showcase the work of other artists. In fact, that’s part of the reason the exhibition space was created thirteen years ago, to bring contemporary art to Springfield regardless of where it’s made. 

After she saw the Instagram picture, Hughes contacted the Springfield History Museum curator Madeline McGraw. Hughes expected to see one or two quilts but was delighted to be granted access to the entire collection at the museum, which dates back to the late 1800s. The quilts are in different states of repair and the ones on loan in “Quilt Bloc” are under glass, except for the Springfield Centennial Quilt which hangs on a wall.  

Alongside the historical quilts in the show is contemporary art made by Max Adrian, Frances Andonopoulos, Andrew Douglas Campbell, Sonja Dahl, Noah Greene, Irene June and Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos). This collection of multimedia work, sculptures, installations and contemporary fabric art would have made an inviting exhibit on its own. But including historical quilts, the kind that inspired the show, grounds the exhibit in Springfield specifically. 

The title “Quilt Bloc” is a play on words. A quilt block is the basic unit of a quilt. Then, according to the gallery guide, “A bloc is defined as a temporary gathering of people, often for a political purpose.” The show aims to connect one kind of block to another, to equate social construction with the construction of fabric.   

Springfield Centennial Quilt (1985).

Hughes says she and Raasch weren’t sure, at first, about including the Springfield Centennial Quilt. Though the quilt was made relatively recently—in 1985—it presents the pioneer narrative, she says, which is aligned with the ideal of Manifest Destiny. It depicts three Springfield landmarks, one of which currently houses Ditch Projects. But there are no references to an Indigenous presence, and so a person could get the idea that Springfield had only been populated for the previous 100 years. 

The landmarks depicted on the quilt are The Booth Kelly Lumber Mill, The Springfield Flour Mill and the Oregon Statehood Memorial. The Oregon Statehood Memorial (believed to be the inspiration for the Jebediah Springfield statue on The Simpsons) was made for the state’s centennial. It is a large equestrian statue carved in white: A white man on a white horse made in 1960 to honor the centennial of the state of Oregon. The Flour Mill depicted on the quilt no longer exists. The Booth Kelly Lumber Mill no longer operates, but the site has been repurposed to include 26 industrial and commercial spaces, one of which is occupied by Ditch Projects.

Hanging on the wall across from the Springfield Centennial Quilt in the show is an artwork by Sonja Dahl titled Implicate: Incomplete (Birds in Flight), 2018. Dahl teaches at the University of Oregon where she also manages the fiber studios. Though there aren’t any formal ties to the UO, Ditch Projects was begun by UO graduate students, and there is an informal pipeline between the two. 

Dahl’s work is a border made of fabric strips. It looks like a frame on the wall, but with no picture inside. “There’s a piece missing,” observes Dahl. A simple observation that is nevertheless profound: No one picture, she adds, is going to tell the whole story. 

The absence of words on the wall seems to bring the point home. For, the exhibit doesn’t have any identifying text near the art: No statements, no descriptions nor labels.  Though the medium of Dahl’s artwork is instantly recognizable as belonging to the Pendleton brand, it isn’t until I look at the description in the guide that I know for sure it’s made of “Pendleton woolen fabrics and wool blanket.”

The choice of fabric for this artwork puts the viewer on high alert. The designs in Pendleton blankets were appropriated from and then marketed to Indigenous peoples. And today they are sometimes used traditionally. For instance, Dahl has observed that some Native American students, upon graduating, have been ceremoniously given a Pendleton blanket by their families. 

As Dahl says, the relationship between Pendleton and Indigenous peoples is “complicated.” 

Out of all the historical quilts, Hughes says “the one with the names” struck a chord with her. That one is called the Wendling Quilt, after the town in which it was made. Since all of the quilts on loan from the history museum are done by anonymous people, it’s no wonder that names on one would stand out.  

Detail of the Wendling Quilt. Image courtesy of Ditch Projects.

The Wendling Quilt is a simply designed block quilt. Variation among the blocks comes from differently colored fabric and the thread used to stitch in the names. Each block is dated, most often to 1942 or 1943. Jay Swofford suspects the names stitched in the blocks represent a group of people who looked out for enemy aircrafts during World War II. His father’s name, Loyal Swofford, is one of the ones stitched in the quilt. At the time, his father was a Boy Scout and the Boy Scouts were part of a larger temporary collection of adults tasked with looking out for the enemy, said Hughes, who heard it from Swofford.

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Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos) is a basket weaver but her mural-sized installation REAL ESTATE  is composed mostly of digital prints arranged in rows. The grid or block pattern is accentuated on top in one corner by Red Cedar bark and accompanied by a tule basket in the opposite corner on the floor.

Installation view of “Quilt Bloc” at Ditch Projects with Sara Siestreem’s REAL ESTATE.

Though Siestreem earned an MFA from Pratt Art Institute, she says her training began at home as she “comes from a family of professional artists and educators.” Siestreem received a TAAP (Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program) award in 2017-2018 for her practice and research of traditional basket weaving. Her large artwork presents a multitude of prints, each containing some aspect or moment of everyday life, it seems. And within that framework are references to basket making. 

Describing her practice for the TAAP award, she said her weaving tradition “spans from the natural world, our homes, the classroom, tribal government, and outside institutions.”

Her artwork certainly appears to encompass these different aspects of nature and culture. But it reads personal, like a wall-sized diary with a day-in-the-life feel. And each day is a different block—a different image. Siestreem’s work speaks for itself, but it’s also in conversation with the Springfield Centennial Quilt. The absence of any reference to Native American culture on that quilt makes REAL ESTATE all that more powerful.   

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The Springfield Centennial Quilt depicts places that no longer exist (the Springfield Flour Mill) or places that have been given a new purpose. The Booth Kelly Mill Complex is on the site of the old mill but is now renovated and described as a “community, destination, and resource for local artisans, built on Springfield’s proud heritage of craft.”

Places change, and Springfield definitely has. Perhaps more significantly though, ideas change. Oregon is 163 years old this year. As far as I know, no one has made a quilt or carved a statue to celebrate the milestone. But the Oregon State Legislature website has on it information and links to a number of online programs and learning opportunities, and at the top of the page it reads: “We’d first like to acknowledge the many tribes and bands who call  Oregon their ancestral territory and honor the ongoing relationship between the land, plants, animals and people indigenous to this place we now call Oregon.”

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“Quilt Bloc” is on view at Ditch Projects through March 20th. Ditch Projects is located at 303 S. 5th Ave #165, Springfield, OR and is open 12 – 4pm, Friday—Sunday.

Ester Barkai is a freelance arts writer. She’s written for The Magazine in Santa Fe, New Mexico and for Eugene Weekly in Eugene, Oregon. She got her start working for publications as a fashion illustrator in Los Angeles and then New York City. She has worked as an instructor teaching a variety of art history, drawing, and cultural anthropology courses.

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