Exhibit showcases quilter's unusual style

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Theresa Kristof Prah pieced together a quilt top in the late 1980s and laid it out on her living room floor to scrutinize. Now came the tough part: What to name it?

One of her sons, who was in medical school at the time, walked in and she told him that she couldn't think of a name for the colorful curving shapes that looked like paths with dead ends. He suggested "Grateful Dead End" -- and got the quilt.

"He named it, he got it," said Mrs. Prah, 82, in a phone interview from her Bethlehem, Pa., home. She has made more than 400 quilts since the late 1970s, and she likes to name them but deems choosing a name as the hardest part. Family members -- she has five children and 12 grandchildren -- engage in a friendly competition to take a quilt home by coming up with the most suitable name.

Thirty of Mrs. Prah's quilts are being exhibited through Nov. 1 at The Foster and Muriel McCarl Coverlet Gallery at Saint Vincent College, Unity. Her quilts are distinguished by the liberty she takes with historic quilt patterns and by her use of color.

"They're all variations on traditional patterns," said Lauren Lamendola Churilla, curator of the McCarl Coverlet Collection, "but she takes a lot of creative license with them."

No two are alike.

This is the first exhibition since the gallery opened in 2008 to be devoted solely to something other than coverlets, and it has drawn a new audience, including approximately 20 quilting guilds and church groups. Mrs. McCarl, who collected quilts as well as coverlets, died last year, and Ms. Churilla presents this exhibition to pay homage to the donor's interest in quilts. She also noted an overlap in quilting and weaving histories and that early quilts and coverlets share similar patterns.

Mrs. Prah grew up in New Salem, near Uniontown. After marriage, she moved to Bethlehem. She is a Seton Hill University graduate and her late husband, Joseph David Prah, was a graduate of Saint Vincent. They met in Washington, D.C., where she was working for a consulting firm and he was attending dental school at Georgetown University.

Mrs. Prah never formally studied art, but her father and two sisters painted and she was always surrounded by art. She also became fascinated with leftover upholstery fabric brought home by her sister, Martha Smith, who was a decorator for Horne's department store.

"I still have some of that fabric. There's a little vintage fabric in each quilt," she said.

Like many artists, Mrs. Prah finds inspiration in her personal experiences. She began piecing "Trip to New Salem" in October 2001 "based on a 'Trip to New York' pattern found in the Quilter's newsletter (May, No. 316)," she wrote for the exhibition.

"I used the paper piecing technique, which helps to make crisp points. The name was changed to 'Trip to New Salem,' a nod to the town that I lived in for many years."

"And the Twin Towers Came Tumbling Down on Sept. 11, 2001," completed that year, features twin broken circles depicted in agitated color and shape, one sliding off the edge of the fabric frame.

"Hungarian Roses," of 1984, commemorates her heritage and remains one of her favorites. She speaks Hungarian. She made the 74-inch by 91-inch quilt after taking a class on Hungarian embroidery and the surface is filled with the rounded, richly colored flowers found on traditional costumes. She completed the piece with white free-hand background quilting, replicating needlework patterns used in the composition's center.

Her inventiveness is evident throughout, as in her addition of "and Friends" to the name of her award-winning "Dear Hannah" quilt because she re-designed some of its traditional patterns, or in the embellishment of a circles-within-squares pattern by including "ovals and even hearts for visual interest," she wrote.

Also unusual in this exhibition are several watercolors by Mrs. Prah's husband that incorporate her quilts. Joseph David Prah died in 2004.

"I would quilt and he'd paint," Mrs. Prah said. "It was an idyllic marriage."

Mr. Prah made a special contribution to his wife's fabric palette by making a dye from black walnuts from trees that thrived in their neighborhood.

The background of the quilt "Thanks for the Memories" is made of walnut-dyed material. Upon it are 14 meticulously formed, highly textured squares with designs based on stylized plants intermingled with cruciform patterns.

Mrs. Prah said whenever she awakens with an idea for a quilt, she can't wait until she begins work on it.

"When you're working, time doesn't even matter. It goes very quickly."

The exhibit is open noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday. Admission is free. Information: www.mccarlgallery.org or 724-805-2569.

Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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