A quilt is "a bed coverlet of two layers of cloth filled with padding, held in place by ties or stitched designs," says Merriam-Webster's Dictionary.
That hardly describes the quilts on display at Visions, a small but mighty art museum at Liberty Station devoted to contemporary quilts. These are not "bed coverlets." They're eye-catching art-works of varied shapes, sizes and styles that will surprise and delight anyone who walks in the door.
Through Jan. 6, you can see some of Visions' best in their 15th juried biennial exhibition "Quilt Visions 2018: Connections," whose 43 pieces were selected from more than 300 submissions by quilters from around the globe. Plus, through the end of November, there are quilted self-portraits by third-graders at nearby Dewey Elementary School that you won't believe were created by eight-year-olds!
How to Make a Contemporary Quilt Museum: A history of Visions
In 1985, after seeing a museum exhibit of antique quilts, four local quilters decided to start "Quilt San Diego," a non-profit organization dedicated to recognizing contemporary quilts as fine art.
Their first exhibit, in 1986, was in the lobby of the Lyceum in downtown San Diego, a perfect complement to the new theater's inaugural show, "Quilters." In 1987, at a Fallbrook event center, they presented their first juried exhibition, "VISIONS: Quilting in the Grand Tradition." More than 5,000 people came to admire the 82 quilts on display.
In 1990, they had their next juried exhibition, "VISIONS: A New Decade," at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park. That was their main venue for the rest of the 1990s, as they established a tradition of juried international biennials and became a recognized leader in the world of contemporary art quilts.
From 2002 to 2008, Oceanside Museum of Art (OMA) hosted their biennials, as Visions — still an all-volunteer operation — readied for a move into the emerging Arts District at Liberty Station. In 2010, finally settled in a home of their own, they had their inaugural exhibition with a newly-hired executive director — Beth Smith, formerly director of development at OMA.
During her tenure, Visions became a full-fledged art museum, with a permanent collection of contemporary quilts. Besides a team of over 40 dedicated volunteers, they now have a 10-person board of directors and present some 20 exhibitions a year, along with lectures, workshops and community outreach programs. This spring, Smith moved on to pursue her own fiber arts projects, and Visions is searching for a new director, a decision that should be announced by the new year.
Amazing Kids' Stuff: Quilt-making with third-graders
For years, Visions volunteers have been teaching quilt-making to third-graders from Dewey Elementary School on Rosecrans Street, most of them from military families, subject to frequent moves and long parental deployments. This fall, for the first time, their 15-inch-square quilts are on display in the museum's lobby, through the end of November.
Visions' lead teacher, Helen Ashdown, said she managed to inspire such remarkable pieces after only four weekly sessions with over two dozen children at a time. An OB native, Ashdown calls herself a "creative stitch-er," and has shown and sold her work at art shows around the country. She said she was first drawn to Visions in 2015, when she saw a group of kids outside the museum, painting fabric.
"I joined the museum so I could be involved with those kids," she explained. "And this year, I was asked to be lead teacher." This meant working with two third-grade classes, one in September and another in October, developing a more structured program, and hanging the results at Visions.
She came up with a theme — Self-Portraits — and spent a lot of time figuring out how to begin.
"The first week, I had the students make a list of their favorite things — colors, sports, pets," she said. "Then I asked them what they thought the shape of their face was — round, square, oval, triangular? I had them draw that, in pencil, and then think about the shape of their eyes, nose and mouth, and put those in. I gave them mirrors, so they could look at themselves, and then had them start filling in the background with pictures of things from their favorites list."
Week 2, they worked on their backgrounds. "The backgrounds — that's what makes their pieces look so awesome," she noted.
Week 3, they finished their drawings, in full color, and her volunteer assistants — most of them retired teachers — ironed each drawing onto a quilt backing. "That's called fusing," Ashdown said.
"Then Week 4, the kids started stitching, embellishing their pieces with colored thread or yarn for hair and buttons for eyes. Next, the volunteers pressed black edging around the quilts — that's called binding — and we were done!"
What makes all this possible, she added, is the assistant teachers. "They're fantastic," she said. "And with their help, I can split a class of 26 into small groups, so everyone gets plenty of attention."
In fact, volunteers are the heart of Visions, and they always welcome new ones, if you'd like to join the fun.
But one way or another, don't miss the children's quilts, on view through Nov. 30, and of course the Quilt Visions Biennial, through Jan. 3.
"Everyone who walks into our museum for the first time has the same reaction I did many years ago," said Carol Sebastian-Neely, Visions' interim executive director. " 'What a beautiful space and why didn't I know that these works of art existed?' Once you come for a visit, you'll want to return again and again."
You probably will. One more thing not to miss — Visions' gift shop; it's a great place to look for handcrafted holiday presents.
• IF YOU GO: Visions Art Museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, at 2825 Dewey Road, Suite 100, Liberty Station in Point Loma. Admission: $7. Of note: In February 2019, the museum will offer a class covering beading on fiber. (619) 546-4872. visionsartmuseum.org