Fourteen quilts hang in the center gallery at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, powerful abstract pieces that evoke nature and movement, rigidity and order, and introspection and reflection.
They come from Michael James, the internationally exhibited and collected studio quiltmaker, who, since 2000, has called Lincoln home
The exhibition is titled “Ambiguity & Enigma,” a perfect description of James’ digitally printed quilts that can combine realism -- images of flying cranes, leaves and Nebraska skies -- with reedlike black marks, dots and ovals, and large color passages, all in rectangular panels arranged into complex, yet coherent quilts.
Because of the long-term scheduling required for major exhibitions, the show’s title was chosen in 2013, shortly after James began making the quilts. If it had been named a year later, James said he would have called the show “Every Aspect of Daily Life.”
That is because the quilts reflect the last five years in the lives of James and his wife, Judy, who has Alzheimer’s disease, which, as the unused title states, impacts every part of their lives every day.
Diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2009, Judy, who became an artist in her own right in the last 15 years, gave up her studio in 2010. In 2013, she stopped driving and accepted the companionship of paid caregivers.
The latter allowed James, who had largely stopped quiltmaking, to start working again.
“After her diagnosis, the wind was sucked out of my sails in terms of studio work,” James said. “It was there. It was something I continued to do, but really half heartedly. There didn’t seem to be much point. In 2013, that started to kind of shift. By that point we were four years into her diagnosis. We kind of made our accommodations with it in our own ways.”
The pivotal quilt in the exhibition -- and in James’ work since 2013 -- is “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” a quilt that contains five panels derived from pieces of broken glass. For James, the glass provided a connection, literal and metaphoric, to Judy and their lives dealing with Alzheimer’s.
“The month after Judy’s diagnosis in the summer of 2009, our house got broken into,” he said. “The perps, two teenagers, broke through our bedroom window. All the shattered glass was all over the bed and the floor. It was a metaphor for the disease.
“I like the notion of that phrase from the New Testament: ‘now I see through a glass darkly.’ It just resonated metaphorically to me, that shattering of the glass, the shattering of the cocoon of well being of our entire lives, pretty much to that point, and knowing from this point on, things would never be the same.”
That quilt was made in October 2013 -- “I hit it with that one,” James said. The other 13 quilts flowed from it, many of them including imagery that James associates with his and Judy’s post-diagnosis lives.
“The dots represent the schizophrenia of the day to day, trying to juggle all kinds of things,” he said. “Between being employed full time and being a full-time care provider and managing that, you just feel overwhelmed most of the time. Most caregivers would agree with that. You don’t ever feel you get enough help when you’re living with someone with the diagnosis.”
One of the repeating motifs in the quilts are dark black marks that drive through and divide a panel. Those marks were drawn onto a digital tablet into Photoshop, manipulated with varying sizes and color value, printed, cut and sewn into the quilts.
“Those are probably the most literal referents to the physiology of the disease,” James said. “I was thinking of all the synapses that, with the disease, slowly stop functioning.”
Even the Sandhill cranes incorporated into “The Long Flight: Sanctuary,” a quilt he did for an Atlanta group show titled “Flight Patterns,” have a personal connection.
“In that piece, which I did in 2013, the cranes -- I was thinking about us and our marriage," James said. "We’ve been married for 43 years. The cranes symbolize longevity. They mate for life, I’ve been told. I like the whole thing where they come back to the same place over millennia. There’s a commitment there, a geographical commitment, but a commitment like we have.”
Those interpretations, however, are possible only by knowing the story behind the imagery. The work can easily be seen in other ways.
In her essay in the exhibition’s catalog Janet Koplos, a former Art in America editor, examines the works’ motifs -- dots, lines, panels and leaves -- and analyzes its connections to music, poetry and landscape.
The quilts can also be seen as continuing the contrasts that have long been seen in James’ work -- the hard-edged geometry of the rectangles against the organic dot shapes and grass-like marks, the abstraction of passages of black and white marks against the leaves and flying birds and the soft colors of the skies against the heavier, darker passages in an adjoining rectangle.
Those contrasts and the thoughts they provoke seem endless, an intellectual aspect of work that also evokes emotion and is, in a complex, challenging manner, beautiful.
“It’s abstract art,” James said. “That’s one of the elemental things about my work. It’s focused on abstraction and how abstract imagery can be a kind of touchstone to the metaphysical world. There are references to the physical world. But a lot of those are locating things that relate to the interior, to the emotions and the intellect.
“What I’ve most enjoyed about this body of work is that I’ve done it, honestly and truly, with little regard for the pulses of the contemporary art world and little consideration of that world. I did these pieces for me and for those close to me as a way of expressing the experience and putting it in a context. What the viewer brings to it will be something different. I’m not intending to bring one reading to it at all.”
Those interpretations, whether views of the origins of imagery or critical evaluations, are a somewhat, removed way of looking at the quilts. James, initially, also saw the work on a more intimate, personal level.
“When I looked at each of the pieces on the wall of my studio as they were coming together, each one seemed to be a positive affirmation of a negative experience,” he said. “That old saw, when life throws you lemons, make lemonade. That’s what these are, the lemonade.
“There’s nothing about the pieces I’d call upbeat. But they’re not supposed to be. They’re capturing my state of mind at that time. They’re a kind of therapy, and I have been seeing a therapist, which has been worth much more than I’ve paid for it.”
After Judy’s diagnosis, James began to write poetry, often late at night when anxiety made it hard for him to sleep. One of the poems, “Lament on a wide expanse of plain” is included in the exhibition on the wall next to a quilt of the same title.
During a two-hour-plus conversation, James read two more poems, including “Our Own Private Downton,” which uses characters from the PBS series “Downton Abbey” to look at his and Judy’s lives. James didn’t make it all the way to the end of the poem, choking up in its final stanzas.
“”My emotions are close to the surface, it doesn’t take much to set me off,” he said. “One thing about Alzheimer’s is the grieving goes on for years at least for those close to the process. It becomes a state of affairs.”
“For me, the whole process has been an education about mortality, about the mortality of the people close to me and my own, and about the disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s. It’s certainly not what I anticipated at this stage of my life. But there has been value in it I’d say, and I’ve appreciated it. That sounds weird, but I’ve learned so much from it.”
The 14 new quilts also continue James’ exploration of digital printing of the fabric used in the quilt top. There are, however, in a subtly provocative move, some hand-painted fabrics incorporated into a few of the quilts.
“In the fine craft world and in the textile art world, there’s an unspoken bias against the words ‘electronic’ and ‘digital,’” said James, who has focused on digital textile printing for the last 13 years. “In some people’s minds, it’s quick and easy and lacking substance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“I got tired of the occasional insinuation of that. I had some hand-painted fabrics I’d done years before and decided to use that stock in some of the pieces. ... I almost defy anybody to find the pigmented fabrics versus the digitally dyed fabrics.”
The quilts of “Ambiguity & Enigma" are, unquestionably, a connected body of work. Their variations becoming explorations of shared emotions, visual themes and techniques. That’s, in part, the result of their relatively rapid creation.
“It’s been a very intense year and a half, 14 pieces,” James said. “I usually make seven pieces a year. It’s been that way for 40 years. I couldn’t have done it without Leah Sorensen Hayes. She does all the quilting. She binds them, puts the sleeves on four handing. All that is the handwork that is extremely time consuming. I don’t have time to do that.”
“Ambiguity & Enigma” is James’ first solo show at the Quilt House and his first Lincoln solo show since a pair of Modern Arts Midwest exhibitions in 2008 and 2010.
It is also his best, most powerful exhibition this writer has seen either in person or digital reproduction, a judgment with which James concurs.
“I love being surrounded by this work,” he said during the conversation in the gallery. “I’m very proud of this work. I think it’s the strongest body of work I’ve done to date. There’s a rightness and a kind of perfection in these pieces I’ve not achieved before. If it turns out to be a kind of coda, that’s fine.”
It will likely be years before James has another solo show here. With the completion of “Ambiguity & Enigma” he is intentionally slowing down his quiltmaking to devote his time and energy to Judy, who now resides in a memory care community.
“Right now, I’m going to focus on her for the near time and I’m going to continue to write,” he said. “I’ll get back to fabric. I don’t know when, but I’ll get pulled back. The pull is always there.”