The word “quilt” is sewn together with images of elderly women gossiping on a sunny afternoon with needlework in hand and iced tea by their sides – not exactly the bastion of edgy social commentary.

However, the University Art Gallery’s new exhibit, “A Tear in the Fabric,” is a collection of 25 conceptually driven quilts that tackle topics such as the Iraq war, materialism and capital punishment.

To put it simply, these are not your grandma’s quilts.

“The focus was to get material that was dealing with a subject matter, something that showed creative thinking and dealt with a concept. The medium is not as important as the message,” gallery director Jeff Van Kleeck said.

That being said, the time and effort that goes into the medium makes the messages even more powerful.

“You can take it in at first glance and appreciate the beauty and skill that went into it, but when you look back, you can appreciate the detail and notice something completely different,” Van Kleeck said.

Guest curator Carolyn Mazloomi, a member of the African American Quilters Association and a nationally recognized author, artist and curator, chose the pieces from more than 350 applicants.

“She is an elder stateswoman in terms of what she has done to establish quilting in the art world. (She is a) phenomenal mentor, phenomenal scholar and phenomenal quilter,” said Denise Campbell, a comparative ethnic studies professor and fellow member of the African American Quilters Association.

The quilts combine traditional fabrics with unusual materials such as a mirror, beads, men’s ties and plastic army men, making the aesthetic value of the quilts fascinating.

The artists had no limit to their creativity and were allowed to sew with a machine or by hand. The level of detail and shading can fool the viewer into thinking the artwork is painted until a closer examination reveals every stitch.

Besides beauty, all the pieces have characteristics of fine art because they offer critiques on social and political situations that require in-depth observation by the onlooker.

“It’s a medium that you can really spend time digging through the layers to reach comprehension. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time looking at and hanging the pieces, and every day I see something I missed, or discover something new,” Van Kleek said.

A large piece that adheres to the traditional quilt style of blocks, entitled “Last Suppers” by Burch Cochran, is particularly eye-catching. The 12 squares are filled with various plates requested for their last meal by inmates about to be executed. Some of the choices include two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream and the haunting “no special request” selection.

The quilt is one in a series of Cochran’s entitled “Food for Thought” and caught the eye of gallery attendant and art and design sophomore Xander Pollock.

“It’s my personal favorite. I just think it’s interesting all the meals people choose on death row,” Pollock said.

Cochran, in his artist statement, describes the piece as “neither pro nor con but hopes it will cause one to pause and think about this ritual.”

In conjunction with the exhibit, students in Kathy Friend’s liberal studies class have been giving guided tours to local elementary students this week.

The tours include a walkthrough of the exhibit as well as an art workshop where students can practice collage and quilt-making skills. The Cal Poly students explain the process and lead conversations about interpretation, which culminates in the children explaining which quilt is their favorite and why.

“It’s been great fun to see what the kids come up with, and they’re making great connections with my students. Two hours is a long time to hold a second grader’s attention, but after long days, everyone is walking away with a smile on their face,” Friend said.

Friend would like to see the program continued in some form and hopes that there will be more involvement with local schools. Van Kleeck also sees value in the relationship.

“The Art Gallery is supposed to serve the greater community. At a time when a lot of primary education is taking art out of the curriculum, we can do our part to put art back in. And with quilts, it can be used as a great storytelling vehicle for the kids,” Van Kleeck said.

The gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and the exhibit is free. Catalogs with more information can be purchased for $5.

“A Tear in the Fabric” will be on display until June 14.

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