Out from under the covers

Dallas artist's quilts warm the soul, not the bed

Inspiration mingled with commerce when Virginia art consultant Monica Lesko, who'd seen Benner's work in a magazine, invited her to create six quilts for the lobby of the Fairfax Hospital in Fairfax, Virginia. "Fairfax Hospital had a very large lobby which they wanted to make more intimate and less threatening," Lesko says. "Sue's work looks like fine art, but it's more welcoming."

Benner quickly realized that her garden patterns would be perfect. "What could be more soothing than a walk through colorful gardens while waiting in the lobby of a hospital?" she asks. The only color guideline she was given was, "please, no blood red," she says.

After hurried calls to her silk sources and dye suppliers, Benner dove into her Arboretum Series, developing two groupings of three quilts each to create a spring landscape.

Hospital studies have shown that surgery patients recovering in rooms with attractive window views or other pleasant physical surroundings have shorter post-operative stays, fewer complications, a more positive attitude toward recovery, and require less pain medication than patients who look at blank walls. Benner's lobby landscape, which is mounted at a level where it can be touched as well as viewed, extends the cheering effects of art to hospital employees as well.

Perhaps because we think of quilts as (literally) warm and inviting, studio quilts are more accessible than other forms of art. Yet they still have a long way to go in terms of being viewed as serious art. Among traditional craft media--wood, metal, fiber, glass, and clay--fiber lags behind the others in both public acceptance and collection.

In 1993, Sotheby's, the New York auction house, held its first annual sale of craft media. The highest prices went to furniture and glass makers. Only one fiber piece sold.

Full Deck Art Quilts, a traveling Smithsonian exhibit of 54 quilts depicting a deck of cards and two jokers, has helped. When it opened at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in March, it drew 22,000 people during a six-week run.

Yvonne Porcella, president of Studio Art Quilt Associates, the 15-year-old umbrella organization for studio quilt artists, says the group has about 450 national and international members. "I'm aware of only three active contemporary art quilt collectors in this country," she says. "Because I believe in putting my money where my mouth is, I've purchased 11 quilts myself in recent years. But there just aren't very many national or international juried shows where artists can show their work."

Sue Benner, meanwhile, has six current works in progress, is making notes for a book about the process of her art, and volunteering her time and expertise to the DMA's "Go Van Gogh" program, which offers art instruction in area schools.

She's looking forward to being able to travel, to explore the historical frontiers of her newfound ancient craft. "I want to go everywhere," she says, "and see the textiles of the world.

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