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Quilters guild honors longtime Kentuck artist

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Quilters guild honors longtime Kentuck artist

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CW/ Joseph Field

CW/ Joseph Field

Desi Gillespie, Staff Writer

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The average American has likely heard of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, or any number of institutions across the United States dedicated to honoring the best members of their field. But one museum, as humble as the ubiquitous art form it commemorates, largely escapes public notoriety. Artist Hallie O’Kelley, a Tuscaloosa resident for over 67 years, is renowned throughout the quilting community and honored in that same museum.

“In Paducah, Kentucky there is the quilters’ mega-hall of fame, and Hallie has had quilts that have been displayed there,” said Debbie Watson, a former president of the West Alabama Quilters Guild. “We were approached by Paducah to have a mural painted for Hallie in Kentucky several years ago, and the board decided to do one here in West Alabama.”

Over 100 women and men of the WAQG raised more than $5,000 to fund the installation. The group is known for creating and donating hundreds of quilts to local organizations. It also has a booth at the annual Kentuck Festival in Northport.

“We started working with the Arts Council and the public arts committee to have the display here for Hallie, and it’s just a beautiful place to have Hallie’s beautiful ‘October Glory’ displayed,” Watson said. “Hallie was the creator of all the posters for Kentuck for years, and we wanted to honor Hallie by having her quilt shine here as part of the public arts project.”

Though humans have been quilting for thousands of years, quilts became a mode of practical artistic expression in the U.S. The melting pot of cultures and unique mixing of traditions made the young country an ideal place for the generational art to evolve. Patterns and techniques continue to be passed down through family trees to this day.

“Initially, [quilting in my family] generated from my great-grandmother, because you had to do projects for covers because you didn’t have money to buy stuff, so my grandmother and great-aunt would take whatever cloth things they had and make quilts for warmth,” said Hayden Shirley, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering. “That process led into them continuing it as a hobby. … I got involved by cutting the pieces for them because of how time-consuming it was. I slowly got more and more involved in it with the sewing and everything. It’s a really good time just to sit around and talk with each other and visit, and really just check in on someone.”

O’Kelley moved to Tuscaloosa with her husband in 1951 after earning her master’s degree in applied art from Iowa State University. She has been making quilts using unconventional methods since 1980, drawing the attention and praise of the international quilting community.

“I buy a big 100-yard roll of this white cloth, which is dyed and/or screen printed,” O’Kelley said. “The images, I would screen print on the fabric, then I’d quilt around it. That way it would look like it was applicated. I just start with that and then do whatever design I come up with.”

Each piece of cloth in O’Kelley’s quilts is hand-dyed or screen-printed, giving her unique control over her quilt designs. She has received numerous awards from international quilt shows, as well as having two of her quilts displayed in the permanent collection of the National Quilt Museum. “October Glory” is the second quilt in which O’Kelly has incorporated an image of a tree.

“I’ve broken it down into squares, and each square has one little section of that tree,” O’Kelley said. “This one I decided to do with fall colors. Instead of screen-printing with paint on the image, I printed with a bleach gel in there and waited for the Clorox to take out the image, then I sewed the tree back together.”

O’Kelley’s book “Screen Printing for Quilters” was published in 1995. She continues to make an annual “Kentuck” quilt, whose colors are used in the publicity for the arts festival. O’Kelley is not secretive with her methods, sharing her process with other quilting enthusiasts as an active member of the WAQG.

For more information on the West Alabama Quilters Guild, visit www.waqg.com

“October Glory” is on display in the northwest corner of Government Plaza on 6th Street in downtown Tuscaloosa.

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Quilters guild honors longtime Kentuck artist