Kerby C. Smith & Lura Schwarz Smith

Coarsegold couple’s quilt show mixes technology, tradition

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By Donald Munro — The Fresno Bee

It all comes down to one stitch.

Or, in the case of Coarsegold artist Kerby C. Smith’s work in the smart and beautifully crafted new exhibition “Double Vision: Images in Fabric” at 1821 Gallery & Studios, the precise number of stitches is 300,549.

Quilts take a lot of work.

For many, the “Q word” immediately brings to mind quaint patchwork designs found in a grandmother’s guest bedroom. But never fear: Today’s contemporary quilts are cutting-edge artistic creations. Designed to hang on a wall, not cover a bed, these “art quilts” feature such innovations as photocopying, painting and inking directly on fabrics, along with the technique that has truly rocked the quilting world: the incorporation of digital photography, with images printed directly on fabric.

“Double Vision” has a double meaning in itself. It’s the title of one of Kerby Smith’s works in the show, a large, 32-panel creation based on a photo of a model reclining while reading a book, with a reflection of her (the “double” part) created by the artist in Photoshop. It’s also a reference to the fact that this is a husband-wife show, with Lura Schwarz Smith — who’s actually the veteran quiltmaker of the pair — displaying some of her newer work after a career of nearly 40 years.

Here’s a rundown on the exhibition. (For an extended discussion with both Lura and Kerby Smith in question-and-answer format, go to

The format: The exhibition features 27 quilts: 15 by Kerby, 10 by Lura and two they did together.

Says Lura: “We will be showing two pieces we created as a team, but most of the show will be individual works by each of us, with quite definite differences in our styles. However, there are many crossovers, such as the fabric Kerby has printed for me for use in my work, and the quilting or the finishing handwork such as the bindings and facings I have done on some of his pieces. We think we make a very good team, as we each bring our own strengths to the table, and can share our skills with each other.”

The basics: Essentially, a quilt is three layers of fabric held together by stitching. (The middle layer, the batting, which gives the quilt volume and “puffiness,” is sandwiched in between.) Within those parameters, however, the creative possibilities are endless — even in terms of the “fabrics” that are used. One direction that Kerby has taken is using stiffer canvas as a material and then connecting the squares with rings, which almost gives the work the sensibility of a mounted photograph.

The impact: Quilts were originally used as bedding, and there’s still something warm and enveloping about the art form, even when they’re hanging on a wall, oddly shaped or featuring stark digital images. With its striking uses of color, texture, composition and format, this show in particular has a vibrant energy.

Lura’s background: She made her first art quilt in 1975 for her college senior painting class final project, and she’s continued making them — and teaching others — ever since. (She has a degree in art with an emphasis in painting and drawing from San Francisco State University.) Her first art quilts were figurative, bas-relief and soft-sculptural, with minimal quilting, using lots of different fabrics such as velvets and silks. Later, she began incorporating different photographic techniques.

Kerby’s background: For years, he focused his art career on photojournalism and art photography (he has a degree in art history from Hobart College in New York), with no real interest in the fabric arts other than appreciating his wife’s work. Along the way, he honed his photographic printing skills, especially on canvas, and in response to a request from Lura, he began printing photos on fabric for her to use in her art quilts.

He finally took the plunge about five years ago with his first quilt, “Wild Kitty,” which came about when he printed a variety of fabrics of a wild cat that he photographed while in Hawaii teaching a digital quilt class.

“She had other projects she was working on and was not interested in doing anything with the fabric,” he says. “I decided that if a quilt was going to be made from the fabric then I had to do it.”

Then he started teaching quilters to print their own personal digital fabrics, and he and Lura wrote a book in 2010 (“Secrets of Digital Printing: From Camera to Quilt”).

The technology: Recent developments in software, fabrics and printing techniques have made it easier for art quilters to create images. Sewing machines — more like “sewing computers” — have made major leaps. Kerby uses a Bernina 750 machine, which features a stitch regulator that allows him to do free-motion stitches with even stitches in the fraction of the time it takes to do it by hand. (It also helps him count stitches, which is how he got the total number that went into his works in the show.)

Most recent recognition: For Quilt National 2013, a prestigious biennial art quilt show, each worked independently and submitted separate projects. Kerby’s piece, “Graffiti Series: Chain Link,” is a machine-quilted, digitally printed photo canvas tile works connected or “tied” with metal rings. Lura’s piece, “Passage,” is a more conventional quilterly treatment that uses digital photo fabrics of her own drawing as well as direct painting and inking.

Both quilts were accepted into Quilt National, the first wife and husband team to do so in the 35 years of the show’s history. The show, divided into collections, will travel to museums and galleries for two years.

How to view: I’m still something of an art quilt novice, but my advice is to start about 10 feet or so away from an image, far enough that the individual stitches aren’t visible, and then walk slowly forward, letting the image draw you into the piece. As you get closer, you start to “feel the stitch” — the aspect of this art form that really sets it apart from, say, painting or collage.

The stitching, which on an old-fashioned quilt would be a regular pattern, is one of the areas in which the artist has free reign, and the creative choices made — the color, type of stitching and the positioning (sometimes meandering!) of those stitches gives the piece a distinctive feel. When it’s done well, the effect can be dazzling. That’s certainly the case with this show.

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