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Fine and Functional 

Quilts and woodworking exhibit shows masters at work

Anyone expecting to go to the 16th Annual Quilts and Fine Woodworking Exhibit at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum to see some kind of a craft show is in for a surprise.

Sure, there are entries, particularly in the quilting division, to delight the eye of the most conservative traditionalist. Virtually every piece in the show is a work of craftsmanship remarkable for the diligence and perseverance of its maker.

But there are a number of items in this show that bridge the gap between fine workmanship and artistic rigor, pieces that reach out to the viewer on multiple levels.

A fine example of this multiplicity of appeal is the clock submitted by Black Forest resident John Pickron. A bird's-eye maple dial, open with ebony inlay, stares out from a gracefully hewn cherry wood frame. The viewer looks through to see perfectly machined wooden gears turning the mechanism as the brass pendulum swings. According to Pickron, the piece, which won the show's Impeccable Craftsmanship award, keeps accurate time. Still, looking past the functional delights of the clock brings the viewer to a realization that Pickron has used the colors of his exotic woods and the sublime, slightly oriental shape of his framework to compose a work of art that would succeed even if the mechanism were a complete failure.

"Sometimes a design just rolls off the end of your pen," Pickron said. But, like many of the craftsmen in the show, his designs come partly as a result of trial and error. "I like to make models out of Styrofoam," he explained. "I looked at this one and said, 'Oh, that looks kind of neat, but that part needs to be taller and that needs to be wider.' "

Christine Lawson and Judy Ehnen applied the same sort of process to their entries in the quilting portion of the show. Lawson's piece, "Forty in a Heartfelt Way," is an example of the free-form way in which quilting can address the compositional aspect of art. Ten small abstract heart shapes are grouped in a lower corner of her quilt while a larger heart and a wide-open space dominate the upper half of the piece. Lawson says she hand-dyed a number of the intriguing scraps of cloth in her quilt. "When you are using strong colors, the fabric speaks," she said. "I just placed the pieces until they pleased my eye."

Lawson's finished work speaks as well. "I was born on Valentine's Day," she said. Each heart has a date and represents an important point in her life. "There is a little blue heart for the first time I had my heart broken," she said. "The big open space represents my future, I hope."

Ehnen's larger "Village Quilt" entry took both the Colorado Quilting Council's Award of Excellence and the Best of Show award. She says she made the quilt from a pattern she ordered from California.

It took her about nine months to assemble the entire 66- by 66-inch piece, working at least eight hours a day, including weekends. That's not a problem though, because it's clear from Ehnen that quilting is her lifeblood. "I just love doing it," she said. "This quilt was an adventure from start to finish. It was really fun searching for just the right fabric."

It is Ehnen's choice of fabric that elevates this quilt into the showpiece that it is. A country train station sits at the bottom center of the quilt with water mills and barns, churches and windmills stretching out behind. In between, rolling hills graduate into mountains. The opulent greens and blues of the middle landscape create a pleasing tension with the brightly patterned cloth of the mountains and the foreground. The detail of the trees and buildings, as well as trains chugging along in the periphery, make this tapestry a many-coursed feast for the eyes.

Woodworker and show juror John Lewis contributed three pieces including a Honduran mahogany music stand which took the Form-Function award. As Matt Mayberry of the Pioneers Museum points out, the piece's sweeping center stand and evocatively curved lire yield an object that is graceful yet imposing. The lire moves on the center post to accommodate either a sitting or standing musician. The curve of the post puts the lire in a more vertical position for a seated user and horizontal for one who is upright.

Lewis says he laminated the two-inch-wide layers of the center post using an inflated fire hose. "The air pressure in the fire hose squeezes out the glue and forces the veneers into the position of the form," he explained.

Lewis, too, let his design come as it would, through trying one thing and then another. The V-shaped piece that balances the stand on the floor, for example, was originally a U that Lewis cut in half. "It was totally experimental," he said. "There was a point when I was ready to burn it or chop it up as firewood. But when I shut up and just started sanding, I said, 'Oh gee, maybe this is actually going to work.' "

One exception to the rule that artists in this show design as they go may also be the lone out-of-state participant, Joseph Rozar of Aguanga, California. His "2008 Chalice" made of exotic materials like canary wood, bloodwood, holly and purple heart, won this year's Best Turning award. Rozar, who moved from Colorado Springs at age 11, has to plan his pieces out thoroughly before they go on the lathe in his shop. The intricate patterns Rozar crafts with squares and points of blacks and reds blend with the rich wood grains of the lighter woods and the patina of his finish to produce an opulence rarely seen in woodworking today.

According to Mayberry, the quality of this year's show is up, in spite of the fact that the number of entries is shrinking. "The quality is much better," he said. "I can't explain it."

It is clear that Mayberry enjoys the change of pace this exhibit brings to the Pioneers Museum. "As a history museum we don't often get a chance to be a showplace for contemporary art," he said, adding that he appreciates the more artistic aspects of the entries each year. "You can't look at these things just as quilts," he said. "They are aesthetic pieces of art that are functional at the same time."

The bad thing about this show is that its 16th year could well be its last. Lewis says the artists sell little, if anything, while they are there. The decline in number of entries is a result of the lack of sales, according to Lewis, threatening the prospects for future shows. "Many of the people who go through are school children and others who aren't really buyers," he said.

That would be unfortunate, at least for the museum, because of the display's popularity. "People really look forward to this exhibit," Mayberry said. "Our visitation during the show outpaces all other times of the year."

The possibility that there may be no 17th Annual Quilts and Fine Woodworking Exhibit is just one more reason why local residents ought to get down to the Pioneers Museum prior to the show's conclusion on November 11.

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