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Quilt by association: Artist Jim Hay takes fabric art in new directions
Jan 22, 2013

Originally published in the Battle Creek Enquirer Jan. 20, 2013

By James Sanford, The Enquirer

OLIVET —The word “quilt” generally brings to mind grandmotherly types in rocking chairs, sipping chamomile tea beside a roaring fireplace while stitching together a bedspread made of scraps of worn-out dresses, workshirts and draperies. That’s a far cry from what you would have seen if you’d dropped by Jim Hay’s two-day “For the Love of Cloth” quilting workshop at Olivet College Saturday and Sunday.

Puffy patchwork squares were conspicuously absent. Instead, more than a dozen people were placing pieces of various fabrics on a black background to create a colorful picture or abstract pattern. That wouldn’t startle anyone who knows Hay’s background. The Detroit native began his career as a multimedia artist and spent 12 years as a professor of sculpture and drawing at Olivet College. He also worked in the Battle Creek office of the Nordstrom, Fitzpatrick & Partners ad agency.

In 1990, Hay went to Japan as a representative in a sister cities conference. It was supposed to be a two-week trip. “I was interested in Japanese culture and wanted to stay longer,” he said. “They said, ‘Why don’t you stay and teach?’ So I stayed on and I’m still there.”

Hay got into quilting after attempting to make his own curtains for a new home. Excited by the challenge of working with fabrics, he took on more complex projects. Two decades later, he’s shown his quilts all over the world. His “Broom Pig Man” has just been announced as the winner of the Excellence Award in the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival.

“I find it’s got a lot of potential that I’m happy with,” he said of fabric work. It’s also considerably easier to transport than the kinds of large-scale sculptures he used to do; he said he managed to roll up several of his pieces for a recent show and fit them into two suitcases.

Hay is also a member of Studio Art Quilt Associates, which identifies itself on its website as “a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote the art quilt through education, exhibitions, professional development, documentation and publications.”

“It was always thought of as a craft, always thought of as Grandma’s quilts,” Hay said of quilting. “Well, that definition is changing a lot.”

For the workshop, Hay gave the attendees a challenge.

“The idea was to pick four diverse words and then try somehow to integrate them together into a composition,” participant Joanna Learner of Battle Creek explained. “We started out randomly picking nouns that didn’t relate to each other and then from that we started trying to explore and imagine what we could do with them.

“It’s a way to think outside the box: We’re always locked down in traditional ways of looking at things, and this is a springboard to give you ideas and imagination. We’re so carefully taught to think traditionally that it’s nice to fling something out and get people to explore a little bit.”

Learner’s words were “river,” “people,” “trees” and “sun.” Three of the four items were prominently featured in her design, featuring silhouetted figures gazing at a luminous blue river flowing through the woods. “My sky was supposed to have a sun in it,” she said. “But I think I’m going to take the liberty of putting a moon in it.”

Unlike doing a watercolor or a carving, changes and alterations in a quilt pattern are simple to make; it”s not much more complicated than pulling out a few pins, changing one piece of fabric for another and then pinning the new addition into place. That was a relief for Amy Witzke of Bellevue Township, who was rethinking her plans for a scene inspired by “oatmeal,” “fox,” “shovel” and “prayers.”

Hay had shown a slide of a Shinto shrine, where the faithful leave prayers written out on pieces of paper. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I can do a quilt like that!’” Witzke said. “But then you had to pick three more words so I think the whole idea is lost.” A white temple-like structure dominated the top portion of her quilt. Below it was a panel of a shovel sticking in the ground near a scarlet-faced fox with eyes the color of buttermilk; beneath that was a window frame and a kitchen counter, where bowls of oatmeal are waiting to be eaten.

“My next quilt, I’m going to do it first and then title it,” she said, with a chuckle.

She’s made five quilts before, some of which, she admitted, are still works in progress. She quoted a piece of quilter wisdom: “To quilt is human, to finish is divine.”

“You never finish,” she said, sighing. “It’s wonderful to get the fabrics and the patterns and the ideas and get it all started. Then you kind of say, ‘Yep, I’ll do this next week ’ I know so many quilters who have projects in their closets, unfinished. The fun part is just going through your stash of fabrics and picking out the cool ones and the cool ones don’t always work together.”

Hay wandered from work station to work station, answering questions and sharing tips. “It’s nice: You have people who all started from the same basic theme or idea, but the directions they’ve gone are completely different,” he said.

Standing nearby, Learner nodded. “You don’t really know what it’s going to be until you do it,” she said. “You don’t have it carefully plotted out; it’s all coming out of your subconscious mind.”

Some of Hay’s work is included in the Battle Creek Artist Guild Group Exhibition, which is on view through Feb. 12 at Olivet’s Kresge Art Gallery in the Riethmiller Blackman Art Building. Included is a trio of pieces built around images of Abraham Lincoln (“That was good timing!” Hay said) and made of Japanese kimono and world cloth.

A career that was launched when the artist needed something to hang in a window has led to quilts hanging in galleries. “These probably aren’t going to be on any beds,” Hay said of his work, adding with a laugh, “I don’t even make curtains anymore.”

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