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“Slave Ship Henrietta Marie” is a powerful, monumental artwork.

A wall-sized depiction of a slave ship, which harkens back to old drawings that arrange the slaves in flat rows in an outline of the hull, it pulls in the viewer through its subject matter, scale and craftsmanship.

“Slave Ship Henrietta Marie” is a quilt -- at 120 inches wide and 56 inches high, the largest quilt yet exhibited at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum. It, by size alone, is the centerpiece of “SAQA Showcase: The Studio Art Quilt Associates Invitational," an impressive contemporary quilt exhibition.

A collaboration between the SAQA and the IQSC, the exhibition was juried, the six artists chosen from about 40 who submitted work.

“What was really impressive to me is these artists are redefining what we consider a quilt,” said juror Carolyn Ducey, IQSC’s curator of collections. “They’re using such different techniques, but they’re maintaining the integrity of the layered piece.”

“Slave Ship Henrietta Marie” is by Michael Cummings, an African-American artist whose work reflects his interest in history and culture. It is accompanied by a second related piece, “Escaping Slave Ship,” which is a close-up of slaves diving into the ocean, and the powerful “A Young Obama.”

The latter, from 2009, depicts President Obama in its center and augments the image with found objects, from small dolls representing his parents to buttons from his 2008 campaign, with African fabric providing borders and text delivering Obama’s biography.

Cummings’ quilts aren’t necessarily technically perfect -- their points and corners, for example, don’t always exactly match. But they convey their meaning with painterly power.

“A Young Obama” is paired with Susan Shie’s “First Lady,” a 2009 piece that has Michelle Obama at its center, surrounded by daughters Sasha and Malia on her left and her husband on the right.

As is the case with all of Shie’s work I’ve seen, the quilt is covered with lines of black handwriting, a diary on cloth of sorts, with other narration like “Queen of Pairing Knives” atop the images. The latter is a key to understanding the piece -- the “Queen of Knives” in Shie’s Kitchen Tarot series.

Contrasting the narrative pieces are the abstractions, which are strikingly varied as well.

The purest come from Jan Myers-Newbury, who uses a resist dye process that wraps fabric around a rod to create her patterns and layers. In “Wildfire,” those patterns appear to be organic -- tree branches come to mind when viewing them on her grid. They become geometric, close to hard-edged in “Carnival.”

Gay E. Lasher titles her pieces “Abstraction I," "II" and "IV.” But there’s reference to realism in their brightly colored quilts that are based on manipulated digital photographs that are printed, machine- pieced and quilted. The brightness of the colors and thickness of the work bring to mind acrylic paintings, while the abstracted photo images suggest the comic-book urban landscapes.

The other two artists -- Deidre Adams and Wen Redmond -- each incorporate nature into their abstractions. But they do so quite differently, utilizing far different techniques.

Adams, who contributes four pieces from her “Facade” series, paints on the fabric, which also has been dyed, creating layered works in soft colors that appear to be faded and worn, incorporating organic patterns and lines that appear to have come from nature.

Wen Redmond manipulates digital photographs, prints and paints and cuts up the pieces to create quilts that, like the other works in the show, were never intended for a bed. Rather, she has a triptych and vertically and horizontally stacks and ties pieces together to create images, such as the bird’s nest of “Flown.”

All the work in “SAQA Showcase” is borrowed from the artists, who submitted it after being chosen for the exhibition. So it has not been seen before at the IQSC. Here’s hoping that some of it, especially “Slave Ship Henrietta Marie,” doesn’t return to the artists -- it deserves to be in the country’s most prominent quilt collection.

Regardless of where the work ends up after the show closes in February, it should be seen -- and not just by quilt lovers. “SAQA Showcase” is the best contemporary art show in Lincoln, regardless of medium.

Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com, or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/LJSWolgamott.

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Entertainment reporter/columnist

L. Kent Wolgamott is an entertainment reporter and columnist.

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