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Here and There: Dualities in Sabrina Gschwandtner’s Film Quilts

by Sarah Archer

Philadelphia’s Ritt­enhouse Square, a geometric touchstone in the center of an old, well-crafted American city, is a fitting location for the first exhibition of Sabrina Gschwandtner’s film quilts in Pennsylvania. About eighty miles west of Philadelphia, the Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum holds a renowned collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century quilts made by the German and Swiss settlers whose culture, food, clothing, and decorative arts are now instantly recognizable as “Pennsylvania Dutch.” Amish and Mennonite women have made extraordinary quilts in this region for over two centuries, balancing a religious mandate to live simply and separately with a bold, distinctive sense of geometry, pattern, and color, plainly evident in their work. Though in certain contexts their creations could stand toe-to-toe with paintings by Frank Stella, the quilters’ gendered and religious anonymity means we will likely never know their identities.

For several reasons, an Amish quilter transported through time and space from nineteenth-century Lancaster County to twenty-first-century Philadelphia would probably find one of Gschwandtner’s film quilts unintelligible, not least because the technology of film (obsolete though it may be, from our point of view) would be a foreign concept. More importantly, they are “nonfunctional” in the purely domestic understanding of the word. Made from acetate or polyester, materials that could not be less cozy, they lack the raison d’être of most quilts: comfort. Gschwandtner’s creations offer a subtle rebuke to the notion that in order to be valid, women’s labor must be of use to someone, or, more specifically, should serve the well-being of their families. Gschwandtner’s quilts decouple the relationship between the personal, tactile pleasure of creation and the domestic utility of a quilt, as bedclothes or even decor. Looking at Amish quilts today, I wonder if quilters “got away with” spending so much time and effort on their quilts because their ultimate use was the perfect embodiment of maternal duty. Perhaps they did, and perhaps the very act of quilting was consciously subversive. Alas, we will never know.

“Quilts in Women’s Lives,” Copyright 1981 by Ferrero Films

In the 1960s and 1970s, a growing awareness of the vast reservoirs of unattributed female labor (the products of which are evident all around us) inspired feminist filmmakers, artists, and craftspeople to capture, record, and interpret activities such as quilting. This visual legacy forms yet another distinct layer in Gschwandtner’s work. Pat Ferrero’s 1981 documentary Quilts in Women’s Lives, which features prominently in Gschwandtner’s piece of the same name, is a bit like a film quilt flipped inside out: the women Ferrero interviewed tell their quilting stories on camera one by one, and these narratives are stitched together to form a larger whole. The stories represent individual lines of technique and creative passion, in some cases passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. In other cases, quilting is lauded, in pitch-perfect second-wave feminist style, as a physical demarcation of feminine space and place.


Detail, “Arts and Crafts,” 2012, 16 mm film, polyamide thread. 

Julia Bryan-Wilson points out in her interview with Gschwandtner that the artist’s film quilts cause the physical artifacts of the filmstrips to straddle two worlds: they exist simultaneously as translucent representations of another place and time and as physical objects in their own right. In that sense, they wryly nod to Gschwandtner’s own history as a semiotics student at Brown University in the late 1990s. Even as the quilts are present before us, they signify another physical reality altogether. They also reward close inspection and physical proximity. Though they glow radiantly in photographs, only by peering at them a few inches from the surface can a viewer behold the tiny narratives that form the quilts’ patterns. An astonishing array of “scenes” becomes visible in each quilt: lines of text, washes of color, and glimpses of the people featured in the various films modeling clothes or telling stories, disembodied, but still present, even highlighted.

Standing in the galleries at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, visitors may also be aware that they are inside a former domestic space, the Wetherill Mansion. What is now public was once private, which provides a very particular cultural and architectural subtext to every exhibition presented here. In so many ways, Gschwandtner’s film quilts embody dualities and invite viewers to revel in their complexities: light and dark, present and past, physical and ephemeral, soft cotton and tough polyester, traditional and conceptual, here and there.

“Sunshine and Shadow” is on view at PAA through August 18th. Later this summer, PAA will publish a catalog from the exhibition featuring an interview with the artist by Julia Bryan-Wilson, and an introduction by Glenn Adamson, photography by Matt Suib, Greenhouse Media, and designed by Will Work For Good. This catalog is made possible in part by LMAK Projects, New York.

Sarah Archer is Senior Curator at the PAA.


Parlor Shop Artist Profile: Devin McNutt from Saffron Designs

Philadelphia Art Alliance - Saffron DesignsSaffron Creations is a line of exquisite art deco style jewelry from Devin McNutt, a local Philadelphia jeweler. Devin handcrafts her jewelry in a rather unusual way, which gives all of her works a fascinating story…

Philadelphia Art Alliance - Saffron DesignsThese beautiful trinkets are vintage with a twist: Each piece is handcrafted from vintage cookie, biscuit and tea tins! That’s right – these designs really are vintage, but have been lovingly re-purposed into stunning, fresh pieces of jewelry.

Philadelphia Art Alliance - Saffron DesignsDevin cuts out the tin pieces, rivets and stamps them, wraps wire and also attaches semi-precious stones. That means that each of these items is a unique work of art. No one piece is quite like another, and each work of art is like a little piece of history.

The Parlor Shop is open regularly Thursdays through Sundays, 12-5pm. The Parlor Shop is run by volunteers, and profits from sales go back to local artists and craftspeople, with a portion going to the Philadelphia Art Alliance’s fundraising efforts.

Podcast of Sarah Cahill discussing and playing samples of John Adams, Ingram Marshall, and Mamoru Fujieda. Listen Here!

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Sarah generously sent along this fantastic introduction to her work as a New American pianist and composer. Give it a listen to hear what you can expect out of a performance from this incredible musician. Intro by Brian Hart Cassidy, host of the CaveCast. Listen Here.

Ms. Cahill performs at PAA on Saturday, July 13th at 7:30pm. Purchase Tickets Here.

Highly Acclaimed New Music Champion, Sarah Cahill Performs at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, July 13th 7:30pm


By Mat TomezskoImage

Critically acclaimed and internationally renowned pianist, writer, and producer Sarah Cahill will perform at  the Philadelphia Art Alliance (PAA) on July 13th at 7:30pm. The PAA is thrilled to present a truly unique performance by Ms. Cahill, who was recently called “fiercely gifted” by the New York Times and “as tenacious and committed an advocate as any composer could dream of” by the San Francisco Chronicle. This will be her only performance in Philadelphia this summer and will take place in the intimate setting on the third floor of the PAA. Inspired by the exhibition “Sentimental Value” – currently on view in the PAA galleries – Ms. Cahill will perform and discuss pieces that have a special, personal significance to her. This unique performance will provide insight into the world of the Artist, the music, and the composers with whom she has collaborated.

The New York Times recently called Ms. Cahill “a world class performer” and “a fierce champion of new music.” Residing in Berkley, California, Ms. Cahill is a prominent member of a community of Bay Area musicians, composers, performers, and critics described as “a hub for new music nationwide.” She produces recurring concert programs and interactive music events such as Garden of Memory, and is the host to a popular radio program “Then and Now” on KALW, making new music accessible to the public.


in 1977, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams wrote “China Gates” for Ms. Cahill, then a 17-year-old student, to perform. This was her first introduction to contemporary composition, and to the thrill of premiering something completely new. Throughout her career, she has commissioned, premiered, and recorded numerous compositions for solo piano. Composers who have dedicated works to her include, the legendary minimalist Terry Riley, virtuoso pianist Frederic Rzewski, accordionist and electronic musician Pauline Oliveros, Fluxus composer Annea Lockwood, and post-minimalist composer Evan Ziporyn. Cahill has premiered pieces by Lou Harrison, Julia Wolfe, Ingram Marshall, Toshi IchiyanagiGeorge Lewis, Leo Ornstein, and many others.

Her most recent project, “A Sweeter Music” was conceived as a reaction to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ms. Cahill commissioned 18 eclectic composers to write new works about peace and healing, and performs the music around the country. The title comes from a line in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 Nobel Lecture: “We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war.”

ImageMuch of the music she performs defies the stereotype of contemporary music being discordant and angular; rather, it is fluid, evocative of natural elements, and beautifully expressive. To listen to sample recordings, simply visit her website.

At the performance on July 13th 7:30 pm, Sarah Cahill will perform a special selection of compositions and take advantage of the intimacy of the performance space to discuss with her audience the personal significance of the music and the context of its creation. Her first-hand experience will provide profound insight into the music and the vibrant world of the new music scene.

Tickets are $15, and are available online or at the door. Space is limited.
To purchase tickets, click here.

Sarah generously sent along this fantastic introduction to her work as a New American pianist and composer. Give it a listen to hear what you can expect out of a performance from this incredible musician. Intro by Brian Hart Cassidy, host of the CaveCast. Listen Here.

Read the reviews: NYTimes, NYTimes, San Francisco Chronicle

Mat Tomezsko is the Programs and Events Coordinator at the Philadelphia Art Alliance