Catherine Kleeman transforms the Montpelier Arts Center into her own backyard
By: Taneen Momeni
As soon as you step off of the elevator at the Montpelier Arts Center, in Laurel, you’re greeted by a large colorful quilt with a pattern reminiscent of cicada wings, in a nod to Brood X’s emergence in 2021. As you step forward, smaller quilts in warm autumnal colors and adorned with stitches shaping leaves embrace you.
Catherine Kleeman has filled the gallery with more than 20 pieces of artwork depicting elements of her own backyard.
“Every piece is a reflection of some event or presence in my yard,” Kleeman wrote in an email.
The artist began making quilts in the 1980s, initially giving them as gifts: “I have always been a hand crafter. Embroidery, knitting, painting, macrame – I have worked with my hands since I was a child.”
Kleeman devoted 10 months to creating quilts for the exhibit. While she was not sure which one took her the longest, she did find certain pieces particularly challenging.
“Some were more difficult to execute because I had to figure out how to achieve my vision for the piece,” she wrote. “As an example, Blood Moon is the partial eclipse of the moon we had last November. Trying to get the reddish color of the moon and also get a representation of what the surface of the moon looks like took me several tries.”
Kleeman’s gorgeous “Blood Moon” quilt features an iridescent partial circle — the shadowed portion of eclipsed moon — depicted in bold reds, oranges and yellows, with swirling stitches texturing the surface. A bright white sliver of visible moon peeks out from behind the shadow. With her mastery in this piece, Kleeman certainly met her goal.
Four of Kleeman’s quilts — “Snow Days,” “Fall Colors,” “Pond #3” and “Signs of Spring” — represent the seasons. Each has unique combinations of colors and stitching evoking the time of year. Kleeman incorporated symbols, including zodiac signs, in these quilts.
“I haven’t used zodiac symbols in the past, but I may in the future,” Kleeman wrote. “I often use symbols such as Xs, or Os, or hash marks or some other type of mark — this is just mark making for design elements. The zodiac signs I used are easily rendered in fabric and also in the quilting design. No deep hidden meaning, they just happened to fit the idea.”
While Kleeman deliberately incorporated the zodiac signs, she noted that some elements in her art were not as calculated.
“I found it interesting that the quilts quite naturally fell into seasonal groups. It was not intentional, but since I made them over the period of nearly a year, it makes sense that I would have been influenced by my surroundings,” she wrote.
Kleeman said that she does not have a favorite piece.
“I like different pieces for different reasons. Sunflowers make me happy. The design for the Elephant Ear was challenging. The colors of Snow Days are not colors I use very often.”
Although there were many quilts of varying sizes and with varying designs, only one of the quilts, “Deer Lettuce,” featured text — noting, appropriately, a recipe for deer repellent.
“I don’t put text in my quilts very often, at least not like this. I did this piece to make a record of this recipe because I am often asked for it by friends who have deer who eat their plants. The postcard I made for the show uses the image of that quilt, and so I am hoping that they keep it for reference (and so have a reminder of my quilt),” Kleeman wrote.
Kleeman’s art was chosen as part of a juried competition, according to Alan Ernstein, the technical director at the arts center.
“The jury process is just a couple of weeks. … We have a jury who spends a week or two deciding which are their choices, and then we invite the artists for specific periods … When they’re scheduled to bring the artwork in, I have a week to put it up on the wall and light it. Then they run for two months,” he said.
Entering the competition was a first for Kleeman, and she submitted entirely new pieces. “For this show, my proposal involved my making all new work,” she noted.
Both Ernstein and Kleeman emphasized the importance of offering the community a broad range of art and media through the center’s exhibits.
“We’re trying to attract as many different parts of the community as we can … We hope to have as many different kinds of things as we can so that people can come in every two months and see something that is a different way to express themselves,” Ernstein said.
“I hope the community understands the concept that quilts are more than just utilitarian objects. They deserve a place on the wall in art galleries alongside all the other forms of art,” Kleeman said. “Quilts and other textiles have primarily been the work of women and have frequently been relegated to second class positions. I hope that my work and the work of my peers can be given their due.”