Unless you’re a regular visitor to the Agricultural Fair showroom, you’ve probably never had the chance to see the work of artist Sara McLane Kurth. Kurth may not consider herself an artist, but her hand-stitched quilts are always folded, stacked, and safely stored in her Edgartown home, and these quilts are intricate and beautiful pieces born out of a flair for color and design creative thinking. There is a story or message behind everyone.
Although she’s worn quilts at the show every year for more than 30 years (with a stack of ribbons — mostly blue — to signify her efforts), Kurth has never shown her collection anywhere. Now, thanks to Meris Keating, Senior Director of Services for the Edgartown Council on Aging, the public can now view Kurth’s selection of quilts online through Anchor’s newsletter.
Quilts range from quilts with traditional elements to abstract quilts. For the former, Kurth starts with patterns, then arranges her squares into her own designs, adding decorative elements such as beads, tiny bells and other elements. She sewed the parts by hand and then machine stitched them together.
For a while, Kurt made full-sized comforters and sold some at craft fairs. Ultimately, however, she decided that what she really wanted was to create work that meant something to her and keep the quilt to herself.
Kurth started using quilting as a therapy. In the 1990s, she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue and Immune Deficiency Syndrome (CFIDS), which she called “a terrible disease, very terrible.” To distract herself, she started sewing, which soon became a real passion. “To deal with it, I started quilting,” she says.
Some of her works honor people in her life, or people she admires. One of her quilts featured earth tones and tiny golden bells, which Kurth dedicated to her longtime physician, Dr. Larsen, whose photographs in Nepal inspired the design. Another extremely contemporary piece in red and black, in a note-printed fabric, pays homage to one of the artist’s musician friends.
One of Kurth’s first quilts was inspired by a favorite painter. “I love Frida Kahlo,” the artist said. “I was moved by the fact that she was painting in bed because she was ill.” The piece features earth, sky and ocean colours and is adorned with lots of beadwork. A piece titled “Kaffe Ole” pays homage to Kaffe Fassett, the British artist known for his work on textiles and other decorative arts.
Some of the works reflect Kurth’s interest in current affairs and her political views. One of the most impressive are the small portraits of 16 Nobel laureates arranged in a crisscross pattern (a tribute to Florence Nightingale, who suffered from a CFIDS-like illness), and set in Small clocks at different times to represent the passage of time. On the back of the quilt, the artist attached a statement about the piece, along with a list of Nobel laureates and a brief description of their achievements.
Made in 2007 and titled “Time Heals All Wounds,” the accompanying statement section reads, “This quilt is to express my feelings about the Iraq War. About my anger at the Bush administration. Sad for friends who sent their kids to fight. Why can’t we live in peace on this earth? I long for peace, both on this planet and in my own heart.”
Kurth was resourceful and came up with a way to transfer the image to the fabric using her own printer. Before starting this work, she received permission from the Nobel Foundation. Topics include Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer, Linus Pauling, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter, and many lesser known people.
Some quilts are purely decorative, and while the designs often feature some traditional patterns, they are all personal and imaginative. Kurth has a ton of fabrics and beads to draw on. She was often inspired by the fabric itself, such as a square piece with mandala-like blocks and lots of handmade beading on a black background.
Kurth no longer sews. She has no time as she is now taking care of her ailing husband. Her collection of quilts is carefully stored in the closet, a testament to the longevity of inspiration and creativity. It would be great if the work could be shown in person and all the intricate designs and patterns could be admired really up close.
To see a selection of quilts made by Sara McClane Kurth, check out the Anchors newsletter at bit.ly/KurthQuilts.