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Murrysville quilter has a modern take on the past

Tribune-Review
| Sunday, June 23, 2013 9:00 p.m
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Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Art Quilter Patricia Kennedy-Zafred of Murrysville works on a new piece in her studio on Monday, June 10, 2013.
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Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Art Quilter Patricia Kennedy-Zafred of Murrysville stands for a portrait in her studio on Monday, June 10, 2013.
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Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
A quilt made by Art Quilter Patricia Kennedy-Zafred of Murrysville titled 'Tesoro Escondido' hangs in her studio on Monday, June 10, 2013.
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Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Art Quilter Patricia Kennedy-Zafred of Murrysville works on a new piece in her studio on Monday, June 10, 2013.
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Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
A detail of a quilt made by Art Quilter Patricia Kennedy-Zafred of Murrysville photographed on Monday, June 10, 2013. The quilt is one from her child labor series.
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Patricia Kennedy-Zafred
The art quilt “Descent into Darkness: The Boys of the Mines,” by Patricia Kennedy-Zafred

While she grew up making her own clothes, Patricia Kennedy-Zafred of Murrysville was 40 years old before she turned her skill with needle and thread to something more innovative: art quilting.

Now 61, the retired paralegal quilts full-time, and is earning accolades for her work in the fiber-arts community.

Her silk-screened portrayal of child coal miners is on display at the Quilt National ’13 exhibition at the Dairy Barn Cultural Arts Center in Athens, Ohio.

Titled “Descent Into Darkness: The Boys of the Mines,” Kennedy-Zafred’s quilt was among 85 of 858 entries selected for the show, which begins touring the country in September. It was chosen by Nelsonville Quilt Co. for the Heartland Award, which goes to an artist from Ohio or any of its neighboring states who works in a regional theme.

This is the second time work by Kennedy-Zafred has been selected for exhibition by Quilt National.

“I’m proud of the fact that I got into Quilt National again,” she says. “That means more than anything because it’s hard to get in even once.”

Since it was founded in 1979, Quilt National has provided a venue for art quilting — a medium more akin to fine art.

“It’s become huge,” says Quilt National director Kathleen Dawson. “People from all 50 states and 20 to 30 foreign countries are expected to visit our exhibition this summer.”

Art quilting has come into its own by elevating an ancient form of needlework to a new level of creativity, Dawson says. “We support nontraditional quilting … quilts made to be hung on walls.

“Art quilts in general, and Kennedy-Zafred’s in particular, have more surface design than traditional quilts,” she says. “There’s a lot more involved than piecing and stitching fabric.”

Like many art quilters, Kennedy-Zafred started quilting with traditional Amish-style patterns, but through her affiliation with the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh, she began about 20 years ago to experiment with unconventional techniques and materials, including acetate and soft plastics.

“Most peoples’ concept of a quilt is what we’ve seen for hundreds of years — three layers of fabric stitched together in some way and bound on the edges,” she says. “I work within that basic context, but I try to break all the rules. I like pushing the boundaries.”

Currently, she works with Kona cotton that she hand-dyes and silk-screens with repetitive images.

Showing at Quilt National validates her approach, she says. “It means my work is on the right track.”

It also has evolved relatively quickly. Kennedy-Zafred started quilting after her son, Gif, was born, but put her art on hold for 10 years for her paralegal career. In 2010, with encouragement from her husband, Paolo Zafred, she turned to quilting full-time.

She works four to six hours a day, alternating between Artist Image Resource, a print-making facility on Pittsburgh’s North Side, and her home, where her dining room is now a studio. “Fabric dying is a big, messy process,” she says, “so I do that in the basement.”

Because imagery drives her work, much of Kennedy-Zafred’s time is spent poring over photographs, often on the Library of Congress website — “a fabulous resource,” she says, for downloading copyright-free images.

It is where she found the historical photos by Louis Hines that became the genesis for her award-winning piece. “I stumbled onto them, and they spoke to me,” she says. “They were so compelling.”

Hines was employed by the federal government around 1900 to document the exploitation of underage workers and call attention to their plight.

In her quilt, those pictures have resonated with viewers, Kennedy-Zafred says.

“When I went to the opening of the Quilt National show, I was stunned by how many people came up to me and said, ‘My father worked in the mines,’ or ‘My grandfather worked in the mines.’ ”

She used photographs of young girls toiling in cotton mills in another quilt, even including the words of one child which Hines had attached to a photo. “A little girl who looked about 5 said, ‘I’m not old enough to work, but I do so just the same,’ ” she says.

Kennedy-Zafred also has made American Indian-theme quilts, and she wants to explore immigration, using photographs of her Irish ancestors who moved to the United States. “The challenge is finding images large enough and with high-enough resolution to convey to screening,” she says. “That can be difficult.”

She wants to advance her screening beyond one color, and to add layering. “These are labor-intensive processes,” she says. “Actually, putting the quilt together isn’t as time-consuming as dying all the fabric and then screening it. The advance work can take months.”

Because it’s also a solitary endeavor, she values the support of colleagues in the fiberarts guild.

“It’s nice to be around people who understand what I’m doing,” Kennedy-Zafred says. “It’s one of the reasons I like working at the studio on the North Side.”

This is an exciting time to be an art quilter, she says.

“You go to Quilt National and all the artists are like me, in their 50s, 60s and 70s, but the modern quilt movement is now attracting 20- to 30-years-olds. Quilting is very much on the rise.”

Priced at $3,000, “Descent Into Darkness” will be on display in Athens through early September. Eventually, it will be part of a Quilt National European tour.

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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