Whit Gibbons

Whit Gibbons

I was staring at 96 brightly colored fish, all of them the same shape and size, all swimming in the same direction. Their eye-catching colors included purples, blues, yellows, reds and greens. One fish looked like a rainbow. Not 20 feet away, I had gazed into the eyes of an enormous tiger with an orange body and black stripes; nearby, a gray tiger would have been camouflaged in a snow scene in the Himalayas. Adding to the incongruous collection of nature, a narwhal swam in Arctic waters, its spiral tusk leading the way. Blooming flowers were everywhere. Was I at a natural history museum? A zoo? An aquarium? Botanical gardens? No, no, no and no. I was at a quilt show.

From an ecological perspective, the quilt show constituted an ecosystem. Each entry could be viewed as a habitat. Collectively, those entries reflected an impressive level of biodiversity. One theme was Oceans of Thought, with an appropriate array of sea life – a whale that couldn’t be missed; starfish, snails and seahorses. Vibrantly colored sea turtles swam through many of the scenes. A few of the animal-oriented quilts were highly stylized. One large one reminded me of Renaissance paintings best viewed from a distance. The quilt seemed to be a bunch of back and forth lines, until you moved away. The view from across the room revealed a flight of dragonflies migrating toward the border. Another quilt sported a mix of personable rabbits, foxes, owls and hedgehogs, which might be found together in an English countryside. Domestic animals were not short-changed. In the Small Wall Hangings category, a life-size rooster looked like it could wake up anyone who was sleeping next to it. A quilted nativity scene ensured that cows, sheep and donkeys were represented.

In garden scenes few colors went unrepresented in one quilt or another. Irises, poppies and sunflowers all made an appearance. The array of colors found in maple leaves was aptly illustrated in one bed quilt. The exhibition showcased 75 quilts. Based on an initial pass through the gallery, I estimated two-thirds of them depicted animals or plants. When I looked more closely I revised my estimate upward, to more than three-fourths. I realized hidden biodiversity abounded. In many of the quilts I had deemed devoid of life, tiny flowers could be found. Art imitating life.

Among other ecological connections, the quilt show demonstrated that an appreciation of living things can be woven into the artistry of quilts in many different ways. One quilt that impressed me from an environmental standpoint was a chronology of the quilter’s son from kindergarten to grade five, with rows of squares representing each year. One square in each annual panel was a drawing the child had made in that particular grade. We all know that children’s drawings can range from hand-painted selfies to mountains to “my sister when she is mad.” The quilter no doubt had a large collection to pick from. Every one of the drawings she chose was of an animal – bird, leopard, otter, fish, peacock, tiger. The pictures got better each year. He might be on his way to becoming a wildlife artist.

Some quilts had ribbons on them. Judging a quilt show takes a special talent that combines a lot of experience and an established reputation. Quilt quality is based on the accuracy and precision of stitching, general workmanship and choice of color. I would not be a good judge of a quilt if I were required to use the first two of those criteria. My categories might be based on the level of biodiversity in a quilt, how effectively the plants and animals were portrayed and whether the quilter’s passion for wildlife was apparent. With that in mind, I may be called on to be the biodiversity judge for an upcoming quilt show because, based on my limited experience, most quilters are nature lovers as well as artists.

​Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Send environmental questions to ecoviews@gmail.com.