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Front Row Seat: Duluth quilters strut stuff in Canal Park

A video of quilters wearing their wares while walking around a quaint English village inspired Lake Superior Modern Quilt Guild members to don their own creations for an Aerial Lift Bridge stroll.

wrapped in quilts people walk through Canal Park in Duluth
Kathleen Hanson, of Duluth, enjoys the view from the deck of the Aerial Lift Bridge while participating in a quilt walk with other members of the Lake Superior Modern Quilt Guild on Saturday in Canal Park.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Late Saturday morning, the operator running the Aerial Lift Bridge stepped outside of the span's pilot house to peer down at an unusual spectacle. Over 20 people wrapped in brightly colored quilts were standing on the bridge's pedestrian walkway.

"We brought you a little color today!" one woman yelled.

The textile parade was organized by the Lake Superior Modern Quilt Guild, who alternately referred to it as a "quilt walk" and a "virtual quilt show." The quilt walk served as "a preview of the quilts that will be on display at the guild's first ever quilt show to be held in March," according to a statement from the guild.

wrapped in quilts people walk through Canal Park in Duluth
Maeve Fairbanks, left, and her mother, Deidre Quinlen, both of Duluth, walk across the Aerial Lift Bridge during the Lake Superior Modern Quilt Guild quilt walk Saturday in Canal Park.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"We said, 'Maybe we just need some preliminary shot of color beforehand to let people know about what we have to offer,'" said Leslie Hughes as the quilters assembled in Canal Park.

"I can't believe this is actually happening," said Melanie Anderson. She saw an Instagram video of some English quilters taking a walk around their quaint village and suggested the Duluth quilters do the same thing — substituting our own distinctive local scenery.

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wrapped in quilts people walk through Canal Park in Duluth
Anne-Lu Hovis, of Duluth, leads a quilting cheer as Lake Superior Modern Quilt Guild walk Saturday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
wrapped in quilts people walk through Canal Park in Duluth
A close look at one of the many quilts displayed during the Lake Superior Modern Quilt Guild quilt walk.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"I love this group because they're so incredibly creative," Anderson continued. "I mean, look at all the color! This is not traditional. This is not the quilting your grandma did. These women are artists: always challenging, always pushing our boundaries with color and design."

While most of the quilt walkers were indeed women, Scott "Starfire" Lunt also joined in, wearing a quilt decorated with patches he's collected during his travels. "It's my camping quilt," said Lunt, well-known locally as founder of the Homegrown Music Festival.

Liz Johnson, who described herself as the guild's newest member, walked up and greeted Lunt. Johnson was wearing a quilt including fabric with red-hued raccoons pawing at aquamarine trash cans.

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"So you went with the Tula," said Lunt, referencing fabric designer Tula Pink.

"I went with the Tula. 'Tiny Beasts,'" confirmed Johnson, naming the fabric collection.

"People are really getting into prints again," explained Lunt. "Modern fabrics and modern designs."

wrapped in quilts people walk through Canal Park in Duluth
Liz Johnson, of Duluth, uses her smartphone to capture images of Lake Superior Modern Quilt Guild members walking wrapped in quilts Saturday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Saturday's quilt walkers were effusive in their enthusiasm for modern quilting, which is differentiated from traditional quilting by a more freewheeling approach. Since 2013, the Duluth-based Lake Superior Modern Quilt Guild has been part of the international Modern Quilt Guild, which also has a Minneapolis unit.

"Usually when someone thinks about a quilt," said Anne-Lu Hovis, "they think of a quilt that goes on someone's bed, and it's a little muted in colors, very traditional patterns. But with the Modern Quilt Guild ... it's pushing the boundaries, taking something that might be traditional and seeing how you can use your imagination and really break the pattern, make something amazing."

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Maeve Fairbanks, a recent Dartmouth College graduate who now works at Duluth's McTavish Quilting Studio, was wearing the first blanket she quilted herself.

wrapped in quilts people walk through Canal Park in Duluth
Wrapped in quilts they created, members of the Lake Superior Modern Quilt Guild cross the Aerial Lift Bridge on Saturday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"The function of quilting is to sew the three parts together, the three layers," Fairbanks explained. "The stitching over the top of the piecing is the quilting. Some people are piecers and some people are quilters, and some people do both."

"She's known worldwide," said Anderson about Karen McTavish, the quilter (and advanced angler) whose studio is a regular meeting place for local guild members. "It's amazing that she's in Duluth."

Picture a typical quilter. There is a good chance you didn't immediately think of someone with dreadlocks using a high-tech sewing machine while while a hard rock band plays in the background. "I've got a nice mix of modern and traditional going on.

Hovis was among the quilters who had their phones out to document the parade. "There's going to be a little video, so please do a little twirl and strut your stuff!" called Hovis, to general amusement.

Once the quilt walk reached the Lift Bridge, Hovis had to yell to be heard above the drone of passing cars and the rustle of Duluth Ship Canal ice floes. "Lift your quilt," she cried, "and hold on tight!"

"You know," mused Lunt, "I've lived in Duluth over 30 years. This is, like, the third time I've ever walked on this bridge."

Visitors to the wind-whipped Canal Park were scarce Saturday morning, but the few people present gaped at the quilters, waving and snapping photos. The guild's video of the walk, posted online later that day, earned dozens of shares.

wrapped in quilts people walk through Canal Park in Duluth
Wrapped in quilts they created, members of the Lake Superior Modern Quilt Guild walk Saturday in Canal Park.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"It's just things that bring people joy," said Hovis, describing the wild patterns on display. "Look at everyone that's here. You just see smiles on their faces. It's a lot of fun, and it builds community.

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"A quilt is more than just a piece of fabric," said Hovis, surrounded by blanket-clad peers who were grinning, chatting and only slightly shivering. "It's care. It's love. It's generosity."

The Lake Superior Modern Quilt Guild's upcoming show, called the Modern Quilt Walkabout, will be on display in Lincoln Park from March 1-31, with displays at both Enger Lofts and Duluth Pottery and Tile. For more information, see lakesuperiormqg.com.

This story was updated at 8:20 a.m. on Jan. 12 to correct the spelling of Anne-Lu Hovis' name in a photo caption. The story was originally posted at 7:02 a.m. Jan. 12. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Related Topics: ARTDULUTHCANAL PARK
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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