A new Quilt Surface Design Symposium exhibition at the Riffe Gallery reveals the ongoing redefinition of contemporary fiber art

In the early days of the Quilt Surface Design Symposium (QSDS), back in the ’90s, most of the attendees were art-quilters — “people who were wanting to take their quilts to the next level, not follow the pattern that you could buy in the store,” said Tracy Riegel, who has organized the conference for the past 21 years.

In the time since Riegel took the reins of QSDS, quilts and other textiles have drastically changed, moving from the realm of craft into fine art. And so, for this year’s QSDS exhibition at the Ohio Arts Council's Riffe Gallery, “Expanded Dimensions,” Rieger looked for artists who are continuing to take textiles in new directions.

“People think, ‘Oh, a quilt show.’ But it's so much more. I really wanted people to see how it's expanded from there, and that it's expanded dimensionally. It's installation. It's three-dimensional. It's sculpture. It's improvisational,” said Rieger, who curated the show and will give a virtual tour of the exhibition at noon on Friday, Nov. 6. “It stretches the boundaries and expectations of what people think textiles and fabrics can do. They’re finding new ways to use the medium. … Sometimes I'll even use the term ‘contemporary fiber,’ because fiber can be felt, it can be paper — anything composed of tiny fibers that can be joined together.”

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Rieger said the goal of the 10 artists — all women — is to explore new territory of fabric art while also retaining the qualities intrinsic to textiles. Columbus artist Sue Cavanaugh, for example, made a large-scale installation out of repurposed parachutes, sheer fabric, rabbit fencing and wire titled “SOS to the Universe.” Inside the S- and O-shaped letters, Cavanaugh included references to plastics in the ocean, fires in Australia and the coronavirus.

In another large-scale, boundary-pushing work, Maryland chef and artist Susan Callahan screen printed order pads from a restaurant on white fabric and strung them together to resemble a prayer flag. “She wrote crazy things that people have ordered … and incorporated a lot of names of chefs that she's worked with,” Rieger said of the piece, “Kitchen Prayer Flag,” which lists mustard, ketchup, jelly and balsamic dressing among the materials Callahan used. “As a chef, it's her version of a prayer flag honoring all the people that she worked with and all that they do and deal with on a daily basis.”

Ontario artist Amanda McCavour, meanwhile, creates entire rooms with thread in a technique Rieger called “thread painting.” McCavour’s installation, titled "Living Room," includes chairs, a rumpled loveseat, stacked luggage, a pair of shoes, art hanging on the walls and more.

All that to say, the pieces in “Expanded Dimensions” are more than art quilts. And although the Riffe Gallery exhibition is virtual only for now, the plan is to end the show with a closing reception on Jan. 9. Rieger also hopes that in spring of 2021, QSDS can once again hold its symposium. (The 2020 conference was canceled due to coronavirus.) “I feel really blessed to have been on the forefront of watching this [change] happen to fabric and textiles and quilts,” she said.