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Quilters who stitched the form forward

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 1/21/2021 Cate McQuaid
Nancy Halpern's "Archipelago." © New England Quilt Museum Nancy Halpern's "Archipelago."

LOWELL — ”The Quilted Canvas III — Still Here!” a lively exhibition at the New England Quilt Museum, is the third and final installment of a series celebrating art quilt pioneers — in this case, Judi Blaydon, Rhoda Cohen, Nancy Halpern, and Jan Myers-Newbury.

The art quilt caught fire in the 1960s and ’70s as a craft revival eroded artificial boundaries between fine art and traditional crafts. These artists bring art-school trained eyes and minds to quilting. Their toolbox includes a painter’s attention to color, space, and composition. Add to that fabric’s tactility and variety; any swatch is a storehouse of associations.

Cohen’s startling, swirling abstractions, made in part with bold upholstery prints, spring from natural themes. The coiling, ribbony striped fabric undulating through the center of “Wrack,” a wild bouquet evoking flotsam and jetsam along the tideline, might belong on a proper wing chair, but here looks untamed.

“Archipelago,” made by Nancy Halpern in 1983, was the first piece in this museum’s collection. It depicts trees and villages along the Maine coast with small, peaked pieces accruing and dispersing rhythmically across the quilt. The stitching — gentle lines dimpling and wafting across the surface — is its own effect, suggesting wind, sea, and the passage of time.

Using stitched lines that way is common today, but Halpern broke the ground for it. Lately, she sews text, as well. In “Tower,” lines from William Butler Yeats’s “Under the Round Tower” whisper about a beggar’s dream of dancing royals. The quilt flows and winks: I see many small towers shadowing a man’s face, and a vision unfurling above his head.

In works such as “Ripples,” Myers-Newbury uses a grid format to give structure to the sumptuous colors and streaming patterns she creates dyeing her own fabrics. Blaydon, meanwhile, focuses on spatial complexity. Her works allude to landscape and architecture, but spaces come and go, describing intangible, labyrinthine inner worlds.

Art quilts belong on the wall, to be looked at. But imagine sleeping under one of these works. It would be a portal straight to dreamland.

THE QUILTED CANVAS III — STILL HERE!

At New England Quilt Museum, 18 Shattuck St., Lowell, through Feb. 6. 978-452-4207, www.neqm.org

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