CQA was born in the fall of 1986. Our local quilt store at the time, In the Beginning, was supportive of all forms of quiltmaking. Lorraine Torrence had begun teaching some contemporary design classes at the shop—classes that were considered revolutionary at that time. In the spring of 1986, the store's owner, Sharon Yenter, along with Lorraine, organized a series of four lectures on the Art Quilt that were attended by about 30 people. The speakers were Nancy Dice, Buff Hungerland, Suzanne Kjelland, and Laura Reinstatler.
At the end of the lecture series, people left knowing that they wanted to form a group. Art Quilts were just beginning to be defined at this time. The group wanted to work together to explore how to present and promote their work as art, and themselves as professional artists. In the Beginning donated space for the monthly meetings. The group initially called itself the Northwest Association of Quilt Artists.
By 1987, the group, already a non-profit organization in Washington State, decided to apply for the federal 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status to be able to apply for grants and receive charitable donations. This required developing bylaws: nearly a year's worth of work by a group of about 10 people.
There were 36 original members united by the desire to have the public understand artistic expression in the fabric medium. Members encouraged each other to develop their own visual style and language, and to work in a series. They developed artist statements. The very first exhibition was in the Edmonds Art Center. Jean Koskie was the first president. By January of 1988, there were elected officers, dues, a logo, and a new name, the Contemporary Quilt Association.
The 1991 Folklife Exhibition was a turning point in that it gave the group increased visibility and credibility. The title of the exhibit was By Design: The Quilt as Art. Members rotated responsibilities and duties so that people could continue to spend time in their studios as well as doing work for the organization. Gretchen Echols was president during the Folklife show. After that show CQA had a big influx of new members, as it virtually doubled overnight to approximately 76 members, half of whom had not been present at the start.
Growing pains ensued as CQA outgrew the meeting space in the store and had to find a new location. The new members did not necessarily buy into the goals of professionalism shared by the original core group. Karen Soma was president at this time and remembers that they had to endure the laborious process of re-writing all the bylaws, which were originally the "generic" ones required by the state in order for the organization to gain status as a non-profit. The revisions were geared toward making the bylaws specifically tailored to the group and its goals.
In July of 1993, the name of the group changed again, from the Contemporary Quilt Association to the Contemporary QuiltArt Association. At the same time, the logo was developed, letterhead stationery was printed, and the group got a PO Box of its own. (These tasks were not as simple as they sound here!)
Some of the things that we now take for granted, such as the information in the new-members packet, all had to be developed during those early years. For example, Jean Koskie brought in the idea of educating the members on the best long-term solutions for preserving flat textiles, such as rolling them instead of folding them, and using archival materials to prevent damage. This is one of the informative pieces of new-members information that remains relevant many years later.
The transformation of Show and Tell to Showcase was another important step in the development of CQA. The members didn't want to simply hold up their work like kindergartners and have it praised by the others. They wanted to learn to present their work as art and to talk about it as art. The idea was that they'd practice doing that in front of a friendly CQA audience, so that later they could do it in public. Developing a system to hang the quilts and stand back from them was a detail, but an important one as it provided some emotional as well as physical distance between the artist and the work.
CQA put on its first Symposium in October of 1993. The speakers were Patricia Malarcher, Nancy Erickson and Lynn Basa. It was held at Seattle Pacific University. That symposium was called Difference: Fuel for Creation.
The Difference Project was part of the event. Twelve members were paired with twelve non-quilters and each pair produced a single quilt that exemplified the facts of these two people's lives and their differences.
Stephanie Randall Cooper was the chair of the 10th Anniversary Committee. The group came up with ten activities to celebrate the anniversary year of 1996-97. These included three exhibitions, two books, a party, and an educational component, including a brochure for children to use when looking at the exhibit in the Convention Center. The group found that they got better and more extensive publicity with each succeeding show--the news articles got longer and included more photographs.
The 10th Anniversary events actually made quite a bit of money to support CQA (something around $17K). They got a lot of sponsors, raffled quilts, and so on. The events attracted both cash donations and in-kind donations.
Sharon Pelton Memorial Fund
The Sharon Pelton Memorial Fund, named for an early member of CQA whose life was cut short by illness, was established at the request of her family as a fund to provide seed money for opportunities that required it. For example, some symposia and exhibitions that are eventually funded by other arts organizations are actually reimbursable only after they have taken place. The idea from the beginning was that the Pelton funds would never be used to pay the rent or for other month-to-month operating expenses, but would remain to be used as a resource for future opportunities. This is another philosophy from the early days that has continued into the present.
In 1998, CQA put these funds to good use by sponsoring its second symposium. This one was called Bridging Two Worlds: Taking Our Private Art Public. It was held at Bastyr University in October of 1998. The speakers were Penny Sisto, Penny McMorris and Lou Cabeen.
In 1999, Los Angeles collectors Nancy and Warren Brakensiek offered CQA a generous five-year grant for a lecture series. This allowed us to invite a number of international fiber artists to speak at our monthly meetings. In 2001, with two years remaining on the grant, an ad hoc committee conceived of a special way to round out the lecture series—a collaboration of artists within and outside of the fiber world to attract a larger audience for the lectures as well as to serve as an interesting exercise in creativity. The result was “Visual Verse,” a celebration that included a traveling exhibit that involved 40 poet-quilter pairs, juried by Michael James (Ardis James Professor, Chair of Textile, Clothing and Design, University of Nebraska) and Hilda Raz (editor, Prairie Schooner, Professor of English, University of Nebraska). A lecture by poet Chick Chickadel and artist Dennis Evans at the Seattle Asian Art Museum kicked off the “Visual Verse” project in October 2002, and a lecture by James and Raz at the Seattle Art Museum in October 2003 marked the end of the remarkable Brakensiek grant.
In October 2007 CQA sponsored a third symposium, this time held at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. Keynote speaker was Robert Shaw; presentations were also given by Cynthia Corbin, Barbara Lee Smith and Michael Moore. An exhibit of members’ works was mounted at the Museum at the same time, titled “Evolution of the Art Quilt.”
20th-year anniversary book
Work started in 2006 for special projects to mark our 20th anniversary, with one result being the publication in August 2008 of our second book, Contemporary QuiltArt Association: 20th Anniversary. This attractive volume included color photos of images from five different CQA exhibitions mounted in recent years. We also created three “modular art quilts,” each comprising nine separate but related two-foot-square mini-quilts, that were very successfully raffled off at the 2008 Pacific Northwest Quiltfest show.
25th-year anniversary celebrations
By the fall of 2009, CQA’s 23rd year as an organization, we could count an active membership of 126 and were producing as many as eight major exhibitions in a single year. For our 25th anniversary in 2011, we mounted two exhibits specifically conceived to mark the occasion. One was titled “Twenty Five at Twenty Five,” featuring one quilt each from 25 current members. This show was a special juried exhibit within the Pacific West Quilt Show in Tacoma, WA in August 2011. A second juried exhibit, within the NW Quilt Expo, Portland OR, in September, was titled “25 Years of Art Quilting by Contemporary QuiltArt Association” and featured works from both current and former members of the organization, exhibiting both earlier works and new pieces.
Although a number of CQA members had particpated in the international, invitational "Patchwork Design" show in Brazil, in 2012, we were invited to participate as a group. Seventeen CQA artists were juried into the2013 show, each contributing three quilts to this prestigious exhibit. The invitation was re-extended for the next four years. In all, nearly 150 CQA quilts appeared in both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Fourth Symposium and 30th Anniversary celebration
A one-day symposium marked our 30th year and the opening of our show, both at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. Nationally known speakers at the symposium were Sandra Sider, Cathy Izzo, and Kris Sazaki. Events included artists speaking about their quilts to visitors for the Museum. The show, titled “Cutting Edge: Art Quilts in Washington,” displayed 69 quilts by 37 CQA artists.
Information sources: 10th anniversary newsletter article by Janice Coffey (January 1997), "Blast from the Past" -- a January 2003 panel discussion with some of the original CQA members, including Stephanie Randall Cooper, Gretchen Echols, Karen Soma, Jason Yenter, and Jean Koskie, and some clarifying emails from other long-time members. Contributors: Lorraine Edmond, Katy Gollahon and others