Wenda F. von Weise, Quilted Tapestry Designer, 19431984


Throughout her whole life, Wenda von Weise was a pioneer. In 1959 she left her aristocratic New Jersey home to get married and move to Ohio, although she was only 17 at the time. At 26, she created a self-directed, part-time program at the Cleveland Institute of Art so that she could continue her education while raising her two young sons. She was to become a trailblazer in the incorporation of other media into the art of quilting. And, when she eventually returned to the CIA to teach, her innovation and exploration of new methods in quilting would inspire the next generation of fiber artists.

In his book The Art Quilt, American folk art expert Robert Shaw observes that the art quilt "grew out of the great quilt revival that began in the 1960s and continues undiminished to the present day. Interest in handcrafts of all kinds,” he writes, “was a strong element of youth rebellion of the 1960s.  . . . [People] sought meaning in the simpler lifestyles of early America, and taught themselves the traditional nineteenth-century arts that had been rejected by their parents and grandparents as hopelessly old-fashioned.”

This new interest in quilting was anything but old-fashioned. As “artists explored forgotten techniques and incorporated the new technologies available to them,” says Ohio quilt historian Gayle Pritchard, what would come to be known as the “surface design” movement fairly “exploded onto the scene.” Von Weise had always been interested in two things: fabric and photography. For her, the marriage of the two was a natural: as a student at the Cleveland Institute, she majored in textile design with a minor in photography. She also studied under Robert Rauschenberg, who was already combining multiple nontraditional media with great success.

By the time she completed the requirements for her B.F.A. in 1975, von Weise's work had already been featured in many shows in museums across Ohio as well as around the nation. One of the most important of these was the 1971 exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. This show played a huge role in bringing national attention to the art quilt movement.

Even as a reenergized art of quilting gained new popularity, von Weise’s work continued to lead the way for her fellow quilters. “Wenda von Weise’s silk-screened images were so radical for that time,” says quilter Elaine Plogman of encountering the exhibition Ohio Patchwork ’76, which featured some of von Weise's cutting-edge work. “ I didn’t know what to make of those.”

Von Weise was offered a scholarship to pursue her MFA at the renowned Cranbrook Academy in Michigan. She continued her study of fiber arts under Cranbrook’s eminent director Gerhardt Knodel, who was head of the fiber program at the time.

Von Weise’s determination to follow her path as an artist may have contributed, alas, to the destruction of her marriage. After completing her M.F.A. in 1978, she moved to Cleveland Heights and supported herself by teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art. In the early 1980s she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her death in 1984 at the age of 42 ended a promising career in the arts. To honor her memory and her great passion for her art form, a memorial scholarship in her name was established at the Institute; it is awarded each year to an upperclassman or -woman majoring in fiber arts. Her vision lives on in the wonderful pieces she left behind.

—Sarah Fallon


Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org