As techie gadgets and a digital lifestyle become the new norm, handmade arts like knitting, sewing and quilting are enjoying a renaissance.
Still, interest in these traditional crafts are frequently limited to women, often grandmothers — or hipsters channeling those grandmothers. But local artist Kent Williams, 55, is one who turns the image of a quilter on its ear. At the same time, his colorful, geometric quilts are turning heads.
Williams' quilt "A Star Is Born" is one of the hundreds on display at the annual, three-day Quilt Expo at the Alliant Energy Center. While many of the quilts featured are skillfully rendered traditional patterns, Williams designs modern, abstract pieces that stand in sharp contrast to the more country-style (and familiar) work at the show.
His linear construction is instantly recognizable and refreshing. He favors simple techniques that translate into complex designs: Long, skinny lines of rectangles and squares are meticulously stacked on top of one another, often in ways that create curves throughout the larger pattern. "A Star Is Born" is part of his newer series that focuses on flags. He's also working on quilts inspired by skyscrapers and architecture.
"Very early on I wanted to make things that I hadn't seen around. I was just a geometric abstractionist by nature. I always liked math a lot when I was growing up and I liked pattern," Williams said. "Also, those are the easiest shapes to sew. It turns out there's a whole world that can be developed from squares and rectangles."
Initially, he was interested in making quilts he liked to look at. But now, he wants to incorporate more meaning in his work. And that includes thinking about life in a digital society.
"Over the next 10 years I really want to drive some content over the relationship I see between pieced quilts and computers," Williams said. "I'm interested in from where patterns are coming to us these days."
Just as traditional patterns like "Bear's Paw" were inspired by daily life 100 years ago ("People had a more intimate relationship with bears back then," Williams quipped), he thinks about "Now, where is patterning coming from today? I think there's a lot of patterning in computers."
As a contemporary quilter, he's interested in how this "old timey art form" can still be relevant in today's media-rich environment.
"What I hope to do is somehow draw on pattern sources so that your quilt is of your time," Williams said. "They're still pattern-based, pieced quilts just like they were 100 years ago, but there's something about them that's ‘of now.'"
Williams said he's felt great support from others as a male quilter in a female-dominated art form. A former arts writer for Isthmus, he learned to quilt "by osmosis" about 12 years ago from a friend, a professor of textiles, observing and learning by making "utility" quilts together.
"As soon as I realized that I could do it on my own, I was off and running with designs," he said.
"I never really made anything and that was part of the pleasure of learning how to quilt," Williams said. "I think that's something that's missing for a lot of people who wouldn't be spending as much time playing computer solitaire if we'd been taught how to make things.
"There's just something that's so pleasurable about just starting with nothing ... and turning them into this object."