For Diane English, the question of whether quilts qualify as art is moot.
"I don't mind being called a quilter," she said. "At the same time, I'm an artist. And my art form is the quilt."
English is among the Oregon quilters working to push the quilt past its traditional boundaries — in fact, the show in which she's displaying some of her work is called "Boundaries."
That quilt show is now on view at the Benton County Historical Society and Museum in Philomath. The show also unofficially marks the opening of "Quilt County," an every-other-year celebration of quilts, in all their manifestations. (See the related story for all of this year's Quilt County events.)
The show also marks the 30th anniversary of its sponsor, the Marys River Quilt Guild.
It's the accessibility and social nature of making quilts that has kept the art form alive and fresh for centuries, said Marcia Gilson of the guild.
"I think it's just a way to express ourselves," she said. "It's an art form that more people can participate in."
English, who lives in Eugene, is a member of the Oregon Valley-South branch of Studio Art Quilt Associates, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the art quilt and the artists who create them. "It's our goal always to promote the art quilt as an art form," she said.
For the "Boundaries" exhibit, organization members were invited to submit works that were somehow based on "the whole idea of what boundaries mean." The show was nonjuried, she said, so the first two dozen or so submissions got into the show.
English said it was exciting to see the different ways in which the quilters interpreted the theme. One quilt, by Naomi Weidner, depicts the International Space Station, orbiting above the boundary of the Earth's atmosphere. Another, by Deb Sorem, "Buttons and Roads to Social Exclusion," raises questions about the boundaries that neighborhoods sometimes can raise.
One boundary that the works in "Boundaries" and similar works are breaking down is the line between quilts and fine art, English said, noting that galleries increasingly are interested in exhibits featuring quilts. She's noticed "more acceptances of quilts as an art form. ... People are coming around."
The other shows in "Quilt County" showcase other aspects of quilt making and range from very traditional to contemporary. Some involve challenges by guild members; in one such challenge, for example, quilters were told to use the initials of their first and last names as inspiration for their quilt designs. Other shows will display brightly colored quilts designed for children's cribs and beds.
Gilson, of Philomath, senses a bit of resurgence in quilt making, but still worries about the future of the art form. "There are some younger people taking it up," she said, "but maybe not enough. ... People don't have time. Their lives are busy."
Still, there are signs of hope, she said, and pointed to a moment at the recent Benton County Fair, when a man — maybe in his 30s, she estimated — entered a quilt, his first effort. It was made of old Oregon State Beavers T-shirts. The man won a blue ribbon. His wife, Gilson said, is thrilled to see the man continuing with his quilting — in part, she said, so she can have the TV remote. After all, you can't watch TV when you're working on a quilt.
It was, in fact, a TV program — "Little House on the Prairie" — that inspired Gilson to start quilting in the first place, with its down-home scenes of quilting socials. And, to some extent, it's the social nature of the activity, with people gathered around in a room making their own quilts that continues to appeal to her. It's a safe environment, she said — in part because people absorbed in their own quilts rarely make eye contact with each other — and so the conversation flows more easily.
And Gilson pointed to another aspect of quilt-making that still appeals to her: When quilters aren't involved in making art to hang on walls, they're making blankets that people that use.
"We're still making quilts for people in need," she said, "and people take comfort in that."