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Renowned studio art quiltmaker Michael James created RHYTHM/COLOR: MORRIS MEN specifically for the seminal 1986 invitational exhibition “The Art Quilt,” which opened at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and traveled to several other venues. Co-curators Michael Kile and Penny McMorris invited sixteen leading artists to make quilts for the show. RHYTHM/COLOR: MORRIS MEN was also included in a 1999 retrospective of James’s work, “Michael James Studio Quilts: 25 Years,” at the Museum of the American Quilter’s Society (now the National Quilt Museum) in Paducah, Kentucky. Jonathan Shannon purchased the quilt directly from the artist in 1990. It is illustrated in the books Michael James: Art and Inspirations (C&T Publishing, Inc.), Michael James Studio Quilts (Editions Victor Attinger, SA and Whetstone Hill Publications), and The Art Quilt (Quilt Digest Press), and it also appeared on the cover of Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine in October 1986.

RHYTHM/COLOR is the collective title of a group of seven quilts that James designed and made in the mid 1980s, each inspired by dance and music. He has described the quilts as "made up of variations on the theme of movement not only as it refers to the design surface and color/line/space interactions, but also as it refers to dance. These fantasies are Inspired by dances either imagined, observed, or in which I've participated I am interested in ways in which both music and dance can be suggested by two-dimensional imagery. These quilts also reflect my continuing study of color and my interest in using it aggressively and elaborately. I want to create linear structures that offer something new each time the viewer comes beck to them. In making them complex, I have had, necessarily, to subordinate the 'presence' of the quilted line, and so it is settled into the straight seams, assuming a purely functional role."

The series began with RHYTHM/COLOR: SPANISH DANCE, which was commissioned in 1985 by the Newark Museum through a grant from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, and cited by Art & Antiques Magazine in its March 2000 issue as one of the “Top Treasures of the Century." was RHYTHM/COLOR: MORRIS MEN was the second quilt in the series. These first two quilts in the series share an ordered, symmetrical orientation of the checkered grids and the curved figures.

RHYTHM/COLOR: MORRIS MEN was followed by RHYTHM/COLOR: THECONCORD COTILLION, which hung in the American Craft Museum’s 1986 re-opening exhibition, “Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical,” curated by the ACM’s director emeritus Paul J. Smith. THE CONCORD COTILLION was subsequently included in a benefit auction for the ACM and entered a prominent private collection in New York City. RHYTHM/COLOR: BACCHANAL was the next quilt in the series, and it is now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Art & Design in New York City, a gift of the designer Jack Lenor Larson. RHYTHM/COLOR: IMPROVISATION 1was commissioned for a private collection, and RHYTHM/COLOR: IMPROVISATION 2 is now part of the collection of the Nihon Vogue Co., Ltd. of Tokyo, Japan. It was one of two quilts by James to be honored by the International Quilt Association as one of “The 20th Century’s100 Best American Quilts.” RHYTHM/COLOR: IMPROVISATION 3 was completed as a private commission for a Charles Gwathmey-designed residence in Connecticut, and was later donated by its owner to the permanent collection of the Mint Museum of Craft and Design in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Individually and as an ensemble, these quilts explore the relationship of visual forms to musical structures and specific dance modes, from the traditional, as in MORRIS MEN, to the classical, as in BACCHANAL. They represent the fullest expression of James’s admiration of the traditional pieced quilt form,and of his mastery of the strip-piecing process.

Like the other quilts in the series, RHYTHM/COLOR: MORRIS MEN is based on a ten by ten block grid with a border a single block wide, but the grid is cleverly broken up by undulating curved seam pieces .RHYTHM/COLOR: MORRIS MEN takes its inspiration from the dynamic patterns that traditional Morris dancers define in their coordinated movements, and from the lively and spirited tunes that accompany these Spring celebrants when they appear on the streets of British (and some American) towns and cities. Michael notes, "On two trips to England, otherwise uneventful afternoons of sightseeing in Sussex and in Yorkshire were enlivened by the unexpected appearance of groups of Morris dancers outfitted in colorfully eccentric garb. RHYTHM/COLOR: MORRIS MEN recalls the sudden boisterous appearance of these dancers on village High streets." (Morris dancing is a traditional form of English ritual dance, performed as far back as the mid 1400s. Dancers typically wear bells on their calves and often wave handkerchiefs or clap wooden stick "swords" together as they dance. To learn more about Morris dancing, click here.)

Morris dancers
Morris dancers in Essex, England

Fabrics are primarily cotton with some silk employed for its subtle reflective qualities. The quilt is machine-pieced, and the layers were machine-quilted using nylon monofilament on the top and cotton-covered polyester thread on the back. The quilt batt is 80% cotton and 20%polyester and the backing is 100% cotton. A fabric sleeve is attached to the top back for hanging.

Michael James' s early quilts are tightly held in public and private collections and very rarely come into the marketplace. RHYTHM/COLOR: MORRIS MEN is one of Michael's early masterpieces and represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any serious collector of contemporary quilts.


View a unique early appliqué quilt by Michael James

Original sketch for Rhythm/Color: Morris Men by Michael James
Michael's original pencil sketch for the quilt.

Toward Barred Island by Gayle Fraas and Duncan Slade (detail)

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Toward Barred Island by Gayle Fraas and Duncan Slade (detail)

Bottom left and right: Toward Barred Island (detail) by Gayle Fraas and Duncan Slade