Catherine Reinhart isn’t quite sure how to describe the polyester quilt she received a few years ago, a cast-off from a box of random stuff at an estate sale.
She calls the blocky hodgepodge of 1970s oranges and browns and hot pinks “atrocious” and “garish.” She calls it a “monstrosity.”
But the quilt was also “strangely alluring” — so alluring, in fact, that she ripped it into pieces and used it as inspiration for a collection of artwork that now hangs in the State Capitol. You can see part of the so-called “Leisure Suit Series” through April 30 in the capitol’s law library.
“Some woman is rolling over in her grave because I took apart all of her quilted work,” she says. “I feel a little guilty about that.”
But she has a good excuse. The Ames artist paired each quilt remnant with a new version she made from tangles of similarly colored thread. So each old “monstrosity” gets a fresh twist, a fibrous re-interpretation that looks like the bright blurry paintings of Mark Rothko or Helen Frankenthaler.
“I’m really an advocate for hope and for giving things a second chance,” she says. “The idea of this textile that someone made, that was stuffed into a storage closet, that no one really wanted, and now it’s these fine artworks on the wall in the state library — I just really love that journey.”
Reinhart comes from a long line of tailors, and her mother used to make many of the family’s clothes. But it wasn’t until Reinhart took a textiles class at Iowa State that she thought of them as a form of art. She was drawn to their textures, their colors, their versatility — and their symbolic connections to what used to be called “women’s work.”
A few months after her first child was born, five years ago, Reinhart wanted an art project — a creative outlet — that she could work on in the short intervals between baby Eloise’s naps and meals.
But the more she worked on what became the “Leisure Suit Series,” the more she realized how similar it was to the tasks of motherhood. It became a meditation.
“Washing and stacking and sorting and pilling — these acts of care are repetitive and ritualistic,” she says. “They’re even slightly monotonous, but I found them comforting.”
She and a couple of other artist-moms — let’s give a shout-out to Kristen Roach and Sharon Stewart — often took care of each other’s kids to free up extra studio time. They gathered to “share woes about art and parenthood across messy kitchen tables.”
Over time, Reinhart created about 50 new riffs on that old quilt. She thinks of them as sketches that she “drew” with threads of different colors and weights. She stitched each tangle onto a water-soluble substrate — a tissue, really — that dissolved when she rinsed it under the faucet, so that only the colored scribbles remained.
She hopes her artwork will invite viewers to take a closer look, to see how it was made.
“When you take something that was unwanted and put a spotlight on it, you can look at it in a different light,” she says. “I just think that’s a really gracious and generous way to look at objects — and the world, in general.”
— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs