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Quilts in Flood Time
American Quilter's Society Show, April 2011

By Lynn Holland

The message that appeared on the AQS website began quite simply:

“Due to high water along the lower Ohio River at Paducah, the floodgates that protect the city are being installed. To protect the safety of visitors to the American Quilter's Society annual Quilt Show & Contest, events usually held at the Paducah-McCracken County Expo and Julian C. Carroll Convention Center have been moved.”

A floodgate is installed in Paducah's flood wall, which is normally open to the river.

Even with the creek (river) rising, the Lord was apparently willing and the tireless AQS staff was able to keep the quilt show afloat (yes, it is a terrible pun) despite the odds that were stacked against them this last weekend of April in Paducah.

Events began to take shape during the winter and very wet spring the U.S. experienced this year. Across the major river basins of the nation there was still a heavy accumulation of snow that was melting as the weather warmed. To make matters worse, line after line of storms marched across the Middle West all during February, March, and April.  As many of you already know, Paducah is situated on the Ohio River, a major tributary of the Mississippi, and it boasts flood walls with murals of the town’s history (which has included more than its share of flooding). As many times as I have been to Paducah, I have mostly thought of the beautifully painted flood walls as a sort of nice decorative touch for the town, never really considering what they were built to do! Oh, yeah, keep the river from covering the town with brown, muddy water. Seriously.

The crisis started when Bonnie  Browning, the show's director, got the word on Easter Sunday that the flood gates would be closed and the convention center that lies behind it would not be useable for the show. Since all of the actual show quilts were to be housed there, this was a seemingly insurmountable problem. However, never underestimate the power of quilters, especially those from AQS.
 

Lynn interviews Bonnie Browning in the parking lot of the AQS Paducah show.

 

Venue problems were nothing new to this group. First the show had outgrown the former Executive Inn (Big E) venue, an old and rundown riverfront dinosaur hotel which was finally torn down this year (to the town's great relief). And a couple of years before there was the wait for the new convention center to be built so that quilters could actually move in the aisles between the quilts again. Last year the big E closed, mired in foreclosure woes, and AQS scrambled to figure out another option, which became the controversial “bubble," a giant inflatable building they used again this year. But this year was supposed to be different: the old albatross of a hotel was now a spacious parking area and there was  lots or room for everything in the modern convention center.

Except for the tiny detail of the convention center’s location:  it is on the river side of the flood walls and the gates that would be closed.  Predictions were that if the river crested as expected, there would be two feet of water in the convention center.  Wading through the center was not an option. Although I’m sure anxiety rose to a flood stage right then and there, some decisions were made immediately. Since they were in the middle of judging when the bad news came, and all the quilts were already hanging on display, the group continued its judging. Then the AQS staff had to decide what to do next. There must have been some quick scrambling as the quilts were un-hung and returned to the warehouse and all the just-assembled scaffold to hang the quilts taken down and stowed as well—in the rain.

From there, it was calls to many other Paducah citizens who literally put down their forkfuls of Easter ham to show vacant buildings and offer possibilities. By Monday, it was all decided and new homes for quilts and vendors alike determined. What usually takes 18 months of careful planning had been redone in eight hours of under-the-gun effort, and by Monday, there was a press update notifying everyone of the changes. And by the time the program was handed out on Thursday, all the shifts were printed in the pages just like it was supposed to have been like that all along. Awesome!!

Because all the vendors and classes were relocated, not all the original booth sizes could be retained. Non-sponsor vendors were told they would have to downsize, some by half their original space, and had to quickly prioritize their wares given the reduced display area.

We arrived on Friday morning and immediately ran into Bonnie Browning, who was amazingly frisky for someone who had just rearranged a massive quilt show on a dime. She told us the story that we just retold here, adding that it was her well-trained staff who knew what to do and did it who had made this event possible. “My cell phone was completely drained for two days running. I’m just glad my phone calls today are no worse that needing to arrange for another trash pick-up!"

We started the show at the inflatable Pavilion, which was the official stand-in for the Paducah Convention Center. This housed the Best of Show, category and bed quilts along with all the vendors who were initially scheduled to be in the center as well. Everyone seemed fairly unfazed by the sudden rearrangement, and vendors were experiencing lots of traffic through the booths. The quilts, as always, are the true stars of the event, and the Pavilion showed them off to good advantage. Another plus this year was that the indoor temperature in the bubble seemed much better regulated than before, so no one was wishing they could wrap themselves in a show quilt to avoid frostbite.

Later we walked into town, and the usual pop-up shops were there, with many vendors down on the main street selling vintage textiles and some awesome old quilts. One of the “just for the show” vendors had tables heaped with embroidered and crocheted doilies, napkins and what-have-you, all for the bargain price of $1 each or 12/$10. Though they couldn’t be termed premium specimens, they will be great to add a little this or that to some of my mixed media experiments. A little further up the way they were selling fabric panels that were enlargements of old-time postcards from Paducah, so I had to have one of each. Then was a stop at the Finkel Building, where I picked up some cool contemporary fabric for burp cloths, and a pattern for a great wool scarf. 

As we were leaving downtown to go back to our car and dump our loot, we encountered a new personage in town, known as "The Quilt Man of Paducah." As he sped by on his Segway, his quilted cape flying behind him, we did a double-take. Rob tried to get a good picture, but it seemed that whenever we saw Quilt Man he was always flying away. He was perhaps headed for a filming, as he turned up in an indie film being screened locally during quilt week.

With all the morning tasks  accomplished, it was time for the traditional lunch at Grace Episcopal Church, where we had sliders with pimento cheese, ham, and  chicken salad nestled in the bun, with wonderful cupcakes for dessert.  Joining us for this yummy opportunity were the Paducah Hollands, Nicholas, Sarah and Griffin. To the consternation of his mother, charming servers kept coming to offer my grandson Griffin more cupcakes after he had eaten more than his quota. Watching a two-year-old stuff his face with frosting can be adorable, but only if you don’t have to take that sticky, over-sugared child home!

Next on our agenda was Carson Park, where quilting queen Eleanor Burns was holding court. She was introducing her Radiant Star quilt with her usual mix of flair and silliness. Dressed in a pretty authentic looking astronaut getup, she led volunteers from the audience in a version of “Swinging on a Star” and introduced her infant granddaughter who was backstage. A poll of the pretty full tent revealed that half the audience were returning fans from previous years, testimony to her enduring popularity. Although we did not stay for the whole show, we never miss an opportunity to see Eleanor. She led the way in making quilting accessible to those of us who want or need to “get it done.” I credit her with my return to quilting some twenty years ago, and with being a trailblazer in embracing rotary cutters and other process enhancing tools as well as spreading the word to others.

Eleanor Burns dons her spacesuit.

Then it was time to venture out to the Kentucky Oaks Mall where we found the always engaging Martelli group, showing their latest machine quilting tool, the weighted hoop. They were also demo-ing  the zip bind system, which I swear by as the tool that took the bad words out of binding.

Across the parking lot there were two big-box stores, the former Circuit City and Office Max, who had fallen on hard times, and their now-vacant spaces had been pressed into emergency service to house vendors. Boy Scout Troop 200 had shrewdly set up a food tent annex and were selling their famous strawberry shortcakes (known as “The Works”) ,well, like shortcakes!  Although the buildings themselves had been transformed into show space and vendor booths fairly nicely, lighting at these stores left something to be desired. However, it was certainly no worse than the old area that was the underbelly of the pool at the Big E, neither did it reek of chlorine. In my estimation, it was rather pleasant to have the break from quilt input that traveling from one venue to the next provided.

Saturday morning we had to go back and buy the stuff we didn’t buy on Friday, so we had a basic plan. We also had to visit the AQS museum, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Since we were nice and early, we snagged a parking spot which happened to be a block down the street from Caryl Bryer Fallert’s home, shop and Bryerpatch Studio. Since we remembered her having some fun stuff in the shop previously, we decided to stop in. As luck would have it, a tour of the home and studio was just forming and we decided to tag along with the rest of the assembled curious quilters. Our tour guide is a close friend of Caryl’s, and offered lots of wonderful insights into the beautiful home. Caryl has a fabulous vaulted-ceiling living room, which boasts a blue-sky ceiling, complete with clouds and a bird in flight. Before moving to Paducah, Caryl spent many years as a United Airlines flight attendant. Each nook and cranny held some work of art or treasured collection, and it was quite interesting to have such an intimate glimpse into the artist’s life. In awe of such generosity on the part of the artist to open her home to tours, I was a little taken aback by some of my fellow tour-goers when they poked fingers between the stitches of Caryl’s hand-crocheted bedspread to ascertain what sort of blanket lay beneath. Really, ladies?? We got to see the fabulous studio and Caryl’s very own fabric stash (which had its own separate storage room), as well as many of her lovely art quilts. In addition to the studio space, Caryl maintains a B&B in her home which she opens to workshop participants as well as traveling quilters. You can check out the workshop schedule and the accommodations at http://www.bryerpatch.com/ . Since she is one of the stars of the film we planned to attend that afternoon, this tour was sort of a cool serendipitous event.

We trekked down to AQS  American Quilt Museum, where the Yo-Yo Ladies were busy in the lobby making yo-yos and selling yo-yo items at a rapid clip. Many folks were going to see the 20 new quilts acquired in honor of the museum’s 20th anniversary, and even more were selecting souvenirs and gifts from the gift shop. I was thrilled to buy an actual room key from the former Big E, along with some darling books for my grandchildren. Next stop was back at the Pavilion, where many of the AQS souvenir items were sold out!! Who knew those coffee mugs and luggage tags would be in such demand?

Next was a quick run through the Main Street vendors, where I bought a precious rag scarf and a couple of baby items.

No trip to Paducah is complete without a stop at two of the places that operate year-round: Hancock’s of Paducah and Surplus City. Hancock’s of Paducah had suspended its online mail order business during the quilt show to tend to the swarms of real live customers. I had to buy some of the Lily and Will “Bunny Hill” line for the expected new grandchildren, and some alphabet white tone-on-tone fabric for Griffin’s new quilt. The backroom had women snapping up the bargain fabric at a rapid clip. One of the signs of fabric contagion was overheard when someone said, "I’m buying fabric and I don’t even sew!!!”

 

The back room at Hancock's of Paducah was crazy with sales.

Surplus City on the other hand didn’t appear to have too many quilters, just the usual bargain hunters. This Paducah institution features stock that ranges from trash to treasure, with everything in between. I found some lovely stone coasters for just $2.49 a set, plus a totally awful Turner field picture pillow as a gag gift for my Braves-fan son. After those stops,  it was time for lunch, so we decided to head back downtown and check out the food venues.

For the last several years, special credit has gone to Whaler’s Catch, a longstanding downtown restaurant, who sold fantastic looking boiled shrimp in the food court—such a refreshing and fresh option for those who may be fried- and carbed-out. There were the expected barbeque and funnel cakes, and of course, the Boy Scout Troop 200’s main strawberry shortcake booth. Not finding anything that quite suited us, we drove a mile down Broadway to the Artisan Kitchen, where we got a much-needed salad fix.

Our last official quilt event was attending a showing of “Stitched,” a documentary focused on the competition for Best of Show prize at the Houston International Quilt Show. This movie follows three quilters: Hollis Chatelain, Randall Cook and Caryl Bryer Fallert through the quilt-making process and the quilt competitions that shape how they earn a living. Two extra bonuses at the show: Ricky Tims was in the audience (as well as the movie) and director Jenalia Moreno gave a brief introduction to the film and was available to answer questions afterward. If you can’t find a showing of this in your local area, the DVD is available on line and might make a fun diversion at your guild meeting or stitch-in. You can find this at: http://www.stitchedfilm.com/

This year's AQS event in Paducah was, as they always seem to be, special in its own way. And even better news for Paducah is that the flood walls held and protected the city against the worst high water in more than 50 years. As daughter-in-law Sarah posted on her Facebook page: "I love the flood wall! I love the flood wall! I love the flood wall!" Paducah will be around for another year as Quilt City, USA.

 

 

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