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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.

Celebrate the end of the first season of CaveCast for a special Friday Happy Hour and Dance Party.


The first season of CaveCast is wrapping up this Friday, June 21st at the Philadelphia Art Alliance with CaveCast 008: Funk: From NOLA to Philly. Join us for a special celebratory Happy Hour from 7:30 to 8:30 (first case of beer is free).


At 8:30 CaveCast 008 will kick off with DJs and record collectors Joshua Kwedar and James Norman aka FROZ1 and Personify, who will share some of their favorite obscure records from their collections. They will discuss how the collection fits into their party Little Big Things, an all Funk party which takes place second Fridays at the Trestle. They exclusively play 45 rpm records, the standard format for singles released on vinyl. The high speed allows for a larger capacity for storing information and produces a high-fidelity recording. According to audiophiles, 45’s offer a far crisper and superior sound to 33 rpm records.

Rare funk out of Coatesville, PA – 1972 – Liberation Records

Click to listen to rare Funk out of Coatesville, PA – 1972 – Liberation Records

A serious crate digger, Joshua Kwedar aka FROZ1 specializes in the rarest cuts of music made in the Philadelphia area from 1960-1990. His tireless search is documented on his website Septunes, which brings to light some of the most obscure gems produced in Philadelphia, Coatesville, Valley Forge, and other places throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania.

James Norman, aka Personify, brings his varied tastes and turntable skills to bare at the monthly Shindig party at Medusa Lounge.

Stick around for a Dance Party beginning at 10pm as FROZ1 and Personify spin the Funky sounds of Philadelphia late into the night.

This will be the last time to check out CaveCast until the Fall. We return in September with another killer monthly lineup including the return of DEL for his second installment of his series on the History of the philaDELphia Dance Floor on October 4th.

Admission is $5
Drinks are $3

Listen to the podcast here

Parlor Shop Artist Profile: Lynn Hoffman

Philadelphia Art Alliance - Lynn HoffmanThese earthy, floral inspired works of pottery are created by local PA ceramicist Lynn Hoffman. Hoffman studied Illustration and Ceramics at the University of the Arts, and has both made and taught pottery for over 20 years.

Philadelphia Art Alliance - Lynn HoffmanThe wonderful pieces she has on display and for sale here at the Parlor Shop are glazed terracotta and stoneware. They are handmade from slabs which are rolled, formed, and then glazed in stages to allow the original colors of the clay to show through.

Philadelphia Art Alliance - Lynn HoffmanWe’re told they are super-durable, and can withstand most household abuse from freezing, microwaving and washing!

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.

Parlor Shop Artist Profile: Elizabeth J McTear from SquidWhale Designs

Philadelphia Art Alliance - SquidWhale DesignsElizabeth McTear is a Moore College graduate with a joint love of textiles and the ocean, which you can certainly see in her fabulous works available here at our Parlor Shop!

Philadelphia Art Alliance - SquidWhale DesignsElizabeth designs and dyes unique nautical prints and produces a range of items, including scarves and clutches printed with fishermens’ nets.

Her deep blue nautical prints conjure up images of whale’s tails and adventures on the high seas, but she actually makes them right here in Philadelphia, and not while sailing on the open ocean!

Philadelphia Art Alliance - Squid Whale DesignsWhether you’re a landlubbing lover of local artistry, or an oceanfaring ol’ seadog, you’ll fall in love with Elizabeth’s cute bags.  We’re in a ‘knot’ over which one of these designs is our favorite!

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.

Parlor Shop Artist Profile: Jennifer Lipman-Bartel

Parlor Shop at Philadelphia Art Alliance - Jennifer Lipman-BartelPhiladelphia local Jennifer Lipman-Bartel is a woman of many talents and a fantastic sense of humor. By day she and her husband run a business that manufactures and sells hobby model kits for ships and trains. Their clients include SEPTA, and their work has even been featured on television.

But at the Parlor Shop you won’t find miniature railways. Instead, Jennifer has specially crafted a selection of beautiful dainty earrings, and we’re proud to stock them just for you!

Philadelphia Art Alliance - Jennifer Lipman-BartelJennifer makes each petal of these metal flowers one by one, by hand, creating tiny steel roses adorned with fun colors and beads.

These works reflect her background in both steel sculpture and jewelry-making: She studied at PAFA and Moore here in Philadelphia, and has had her work featured all over the city. As a cancer survivor, Jennifer also works hard to raise funds for organizations and charities in the Delaware Valley that provide support to people with cancer and disabilities.

Philadelphia Art Alliance - Jennifer Lipman BartelJennifer is also known for creating extravagant necklaces and custom pieces, and even she admits they’re unusual! But these tiny earrings are a little simpler than her usual work. They are perfect little gifts for jewelry aficionados, and they won’t break the bank (honestly).

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.

Surf and Sound: Two exciting nights of music this week at PAA

This week we’re making a lot of noise in Rittenhouse Square, with two separate evenings of music for you to come along to and enjoy: CaveCast 7 on Wednesday May 22, and something a little bit experimental and a lot electric, on Thursday May 23.

Intrigued? Read on…

On Wednesday May 22 our seventh installment of our CaveCast series will be exploring the music and myths of those sultans of surf-pop, the Beach Boys.

CaveCast 7: The Beach Boys, Philadelphia Art Alliance Wednesday May 22ndWhether you’re a bona fide Beach Boy buff, or you don’t know your Surfin’ USA from your Surfin’ Safari, our resident host Brian Cassidy, along with guest Devon McReynolds, will give you the lowdown on Surf’s Up. God Only Knows, this special CaveCast will give you Good Vibrations. For more info and to RSVP, click over to the Facebook event.

May 22 from 9pm. Suggested Donation: $5.

The next night, Thursday May 23, is a little different. We’re very excited to present to you a night of experimental electronica. It’s going to be an evening like you’ve never seen, or heard before.

Philadelphia Art Alliance: May 23 Experimental Electronica NightExpect some fantastic performances from four noise and electro experts: Philly drone duo Comoros, comedic concept performer Crank Sturgeon, Matt Taggart (PCRV), and audio Engineer Electricity for Progress. Electricity for Progress will be playing a unique and innovative performance using electrical sensors on plant life to create new sounds and ‘biorhythms’. If this sounds fun to you, RSVP over at the Facebook event right away. If you’re curious to find out more, pop back tomorrow and more will be revealed…

May 23rd from 8pm. General Admission: $5-10.