- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Spring 2018
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Barbara GonceBarbara Gonce is a determined woman. Very determined. Because nothing was going to stop the energetic and prolific 87-year-old quilter from seeing her work—and that of her quilting friends—on display at last year’s International Quilt Festival in Houston.
Not the fact that she has a terminal disease, or requires the constant use of an oxygen concentrator. Or that she can no longer travel by airplane, and even her pulmonologist was a bit worried. Nothing was going to stop her from going to Houston. And in the end, it was all worth it.
“It was a dream come true, to see quilts from our group in this show. It was an important goal,” Gonce says. “All I can say is that God works in mysterious ways. It was a pipe dream for all of us. But for me it was a vision that happened. And I’m very grateful.”
But the good news for Gonce didn’t stop in Houston. That's because one of those quilts, Kaffe and Friends Meet Cirque de Soleil (quilted by Karen Brown), was chosen to be the Signature Quilt for the 2019 International Quilt Festival in Chicago, where it will also be on display.
The Festival Signature Quilt is chosen from all of the works that will be on display, and is featured on all advertisements and publications promoting the show, and inspires the design of the official show logo. It is also hung in a place of honor in the special exhibits area.
For Gonce, it was jaw-dropping news. “I just couldn’t believe it!” she says. “I do not view myself as that level of quilter. But the fabrics and the patterns made it probably the best work I’ll ever do.”
As one can tell from the title, the quilt is made with fabrics by noted designer Kaffe Fassett. He is Gonce’s favorite artist, and she’s taken numerous classes from him over the years.
“He amazes me in the way he is able to make any person feel good about what they do. So he took a neophyte about color – and both my mother and daughter have told me I didn’t know anything about color! – and showed me,” she says. “And the love affair with his fabric started. I knew he should be represented in this exhibit!”
Gonce first attended Quilt Festival in Houston in 2012 with her friend Sheila Bishop, shortly after being diagnosed with a terminal lung disease. Thankfully, the pair have attended many other quilt shows in the ensuing years—but Gonce always wished to see quilts from her quilting bee on display in Houston.
Quilt Historian Karen B. AlexanderThe story of the 1876 Centennial Quilt Project began – precisely – on May 11, 2015. That’s when quilt historian Karen B. Alexander was tooling around on a Facebook page dedicated to vintage and antique quilts and came across an image of the original antique 1876 EMC Centennial Quilt, meant to commemorate the founding of the United States in 1776. And while the provenance and maker was unknown, EMC (as the quilt has become affectionately known), consisted of 74 different block patterns (including the borders) and used 100 different fabrics, all arranged around a Chips and Whetstone Medallion center.
“It just grabbed me. I was startled. Because I knew there were so many different patterns in this quilt,” Alexander says. “Thanks to the internet, I’ve seen and studied thousands of quilts. But this one was truly different. The layout, the design, the preciseness of it…I knew someone had to turn it into a pattern!”
Alexander emailed the image to fellow quilters in her local bee on Lopez Island, Washington, mainly just to get their reaction. But also with the thought in the back of her head that maybe—just maybe—they could make reproductions.
She then tracked down Barbara Menasian, the owner of EMC, to ask permission for Anne Dawson, fellow bee member and talented island quilt shop owner, to draft a pattern and offer a class so that each could make their own. Gonce was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the idea from the get-go, and a total of 18 die-hards agreed to make their own versions.
“When I first saw the original quilt, it just grabbed my heart strings. I don’t know what it is about that, but it grabbed me and I haven’t been able to let go of it,” Gonce says. “I’m no expert on quilting, but I could tell it was unique.”
That enthusiasm surprised Alexander…not at all. “Barb makes quilts all the time. She is just an enthusiastic person no matter what she does. Her passion for the idea of the project went a long way in helping me to convince Anne to draft the pattern!” Alexander offers.
Then, nearly a year to the date after Alexander first saw a photo of the quilt, Menasian traveled to meet her and the group at “The 1876 Centennial Quilt Project Retreat” class for the bee. And like a special guest, Menasian also brought with her the original EMC quilt that inspired this whole thing. It was the only time that all 18 project participants were together in the same room at the same time.
The quilts in the 1876 Centennial exhibit also seemed to have the perfect symbiosis of both uniformity and individuality. For while all the works have roughly the same block patterns, the colors, fabrics, and placement were up to the artists. Gonce says that she was working on all three of her 1876 quilts at the same time, but Kaffe and Friends Meet Cirque de Soleil stood out and above to her the whole time.
“We were discussing our individual ideas all the time in our classes. Because we were so scattered geographically, it was hard to get together physically,” Alexander says. “But each time we did, we brought our blocks-in-progress and each time we put one particular block pattern up on the flannel wall (all at the same time) and discussed and shared the challenges we had encountered….whether in color choice or assemblage.
Alexander adds that they did this over and over again with all the blocks. They knew from the beginning we weren’t all going to use reproduction fabrics, and those who did still put their own spin on it. Still, Barbara Gonce’s take on the quilt stood out.
“The colors are just astounding. Kaffe’s always are. I know Barbara has taken many of his classes and just loves them,” she continues. “And while the combination of Kaffe’s fabrics and the many patterns might seem a little busy to some people, it works! It’s stunning, and an explosive combination.”
Finally, just as she was determined to see her bee’s quilts on display in Houston, Barbara Gonce is even more determined about being there in person at the Chicago Festival, March 28-30. In fact, she’s already booked her train tickets to the show, in what she anticipates will be her last major travel endeavor. And did we mention that she’s just finished her fourth version of the 1876 quilt?
“I knew that I had to go to Chicago. I thought ‘I can’t not see that!’” Gonce laughs. “How can I miss out on the biggest thing that will ever happen in my quilting life! So of course we’re going to go. And I didn’t ask my doctor if I could go – I told him!”
From Centennial to “Signature:”
The Journey of Barbara Gonce and Her Quilt
By Bob Ruggiero
The original 1876 EMC Centennial Quilt
Kaffe and Friends Meet Cirque de Soleil by Barbara Gonce
Members of the 1876 Centennial Quilt Project examining EMC up close for the first time at the Alexander Quilt Cabin May 2016. L-R: Cheryl Clarke, Avonelle Hamilton, Joanne Bryant, Barbara Gonce, Marie Johansen, Tori Binz-Hillstrom, Linda Cooper, and Anne Dawson.
This photo was taken on Lopez Island at the Bee’s May 2017 retreat. Back Row L-R: Lee Glendening, Sheila Bishop, Tori Binz-Hillstrom, Liz Pillow, Linda cooper, Heather Arps, Barbara Gonce, Cheryl Clarke, and Avonelle Hamilton. Front Row L-R: Barbara Snider, Joanne Bryant, Karen Alexander, Anne Dawson, Barbara Menasian, Laurie Latta, Mary Ann Riggs, Carol Strum, and Marie Johansen. Photo by Robert S. Harrison Photography
Work in Progress
Barb Gonce's Kaffe and Friends Meet Cirque de Soleil on the design wall.