When Ardis James passed away last year, the studio quiltmakers that she and her husband, Robert, had supported and championed for decades wanted to do something in her honor.
That turned out to be donating quilts to the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, which the Jameses helped establish with their donation of 1,000 quilts worth more than $6 million to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1997, then provided the vision and financial support for the museum building, which opened in 2009.
During the past year, 17 artists, including most of the top names in studio quiltmaking, donated 25 quilts to IQSC&M in Ardis James' honor.
"She had such an impact on these artists and their careers, encouraging them to just keep trying in a field that it's hard to be that successful in," said IQSC&M curator of collections Carolyn Ducey. "They had very personal relationships with Ardis. … She would have loved these pieces. She loved the artists."
Those "pieces" can be seen in "A Tribute to Ardis James," an exhibition of many of the donated quilts now on view at the museum.
Two of the quilts in the show are from Michael James, including "Scan," a 2001 piece that includes a CAT scan of his head, and "Daybook: 8 September 2006." Robert James, who is now UNL's Ardis James Professor of Textiles, Clothing and Design, donated six quilts to fill gaps in the IQSC's collection of his work.
That gap-filling method also was used by Lynn Setterington, who donated a 1993 quilt that depicts with appropriate objects a weekly occurrence at that time in her life. Here's how the acclaimed English quiltmaker describes it in the note she sent with the donation:
"My quilt donation in memory of Ardis James is an early piece to complement my later quilts in the IQSC," Setterington wrote. "The support of the Jameses' has been invaluable to the recent developments in my work. So I see this as an opportunity to repay their kindness.
"This hand-sewn quilt is indicative of much of my work of this period and documents 'a night in.' At the time, I shared a flat with a friend who'd spend a whole night in the bathroom grooming her beautiful long curly hair, so the artifacts are a record of this 'girly' twice weekly ritual."
Most of the other quilts are of recent vintage -- from 2000 onward with half or slightly more from 2010 and 2011. What that means is that "A Tribute to Ardis James" also is a strong survey of contemporary studio quiltmaking.
It includes, for example, a trio of 2003 quilts made with digital printing by Gayle Fraas and Duncan Slade, creating the photographic image of a floating buoy juxtaposed with water on one piece and a heavy chain over what appears to be a red-and-black-dominated abstract painting on another.
To choose a few more, the show has fine examples of the work of Wendy Hahn, whose 2003 crazy quilt "Somnambulist" depicts a child sleepwalking in a yard filled with plants and dreamlike images; Judith Larzelere, whose geometric landscape "Melt" is a new, major twist on the log cabin quilt; and Terrie Hancock Mangat, whose brightly colored "Scrap Bag with St. Michael" connects directly with her previous work.
The artists, it is clear, gave some of their best pieces to honor James.
The quilt that best fits the theme and conveys much of the emotion of the show, Susan Shie's "Ardis and Betty: Making Salsa -- 2 of Wooden Spoons in the Kitchen Tarot." The 2011 quilt depicts elongated figures of Ardis James and Betty Ford cooking, the heads of their husbands, Robert and "Prez Jerry Ford," on their shoulders with text "IQSC & M" and "E.R.A." on their aprons. The rest of the surface is covered with Shie's diaristic writing, done by hand, mixed with domestic items, such as a pot filled with "Fiesty Women Tea."
"I especially thank Ardis for believing in all of us," Shie wrote, putting into words what can be seen in the exhibition -- a heartfelt and visually captivating tribute to the woman who supported them and, in doing so, contributed immeasurably to studio quiltmaking past, present and future.