Monday, July 5, 2010

The Quilts of Nancy Halpern

Nancy Homer Halpern is a distinguished quilter, who has taught, lectured, and conducted workshops all over the world. When the Vermont Quilt Festival in Burlington recently gave a retrospective of her work, my wife and I flew up to attend it. We knew nothing about quilting, but we went because Nancy is our friend.

If quilts make you think of your great-grandmother and traditional, symmetrical designs, you'd be surprised to see Nancy's semi-abstract quilts. Here is how she describes one of them: "This represents the climbing of a tower that starts underwater (lower left) and rises through ground level to emerge into the sky (top right). It contains many references to W. B. Yeats' tower poems, and one is quilted into it." The illusion of sweeping motion in that quilt, as in many others, is striking.

Just as a great novel creates a world in which you lose yourself while reading, each of Nancy's quilts creates a world into which you can immerse yourself. We spent hours at the exhibition on each of two consecutive days, and I looked at each quilt time after time, yet each time I looked, I would find new complexities, new relationships, just as you might in a novel as you reread it.

Nancy is now working on a quilt inspired by W. S. Merwin's poem, Separation, "Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle / Everything I do is stitched with its color." (When telling us about it, she asked an intriguing question: "What is the color of absence?") The attempt to represent this poem through patches of colored fabric, stitched onto another fabric with batting in between, suggests an extraordinary sensibility. She has transformed a domestic craft into art. You can see two examples of her work at

The people she's met, the places she's seen, and scenes from her everyday life have found their way into her quilts. "A rambling Maine shed" served as a backdrop for one; the Essex River, where she learned to swim, informed another; her kitchen inspired a third. "Garlic Spaghetti" resulted from her collaboration with the cookbook writer Crescent Dragonwagon, whose handwritten recipe for that dish is on the back of the quilt. Among quilts suggested by her travels is one representing "an astonishing sunset" that she saw in Prague. Another shows a hill town "somewhere between Italy and Tibet." Bergamo's Old City prompted yet another. Taken together, her quilts provide a kind of super-quilt, a retrospective of Nancy's life so far.

As I contemplated her quilts, I wondered if, as I look back at my life and try to make sense of it, an increasing preoccupation these days, I'll be able to piece together its colors, textures, and forms, its dreams, incidents, achievements, and failures, like the elements in Nancy's quilts. Will I discover an overall design, like that tower rising to the sky? If so, it will have arisen without planning, unlike the quilts of Nancy Homer Halpern.

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