Published, EAC Communiqué, March 1987
uilt designer Ralph Beney reflects that he has “shifted gears” and is “operating with a different octane of fuel” these days. Invitations to exhibit in two prestigious shows indicate growing recognition of his originality in this art form, which has been so linked to tradition. In May he will be represented in the show which accompanies the Quilt Canada conference in Montreal. This summer, the 10th anniversary show of the Vermont Quilt Festival has asked to exhibit his work ‘Tribute to Georgia O’Keeffe’, termed by one critic “an apotheosis of a quilt”.
In terms of creativity, as well as appreciation, 1986 was a fine year for Ralph Beney. “Fabrications”, a two-month solo exhibit of 14 quilts at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre was complemented by an intensive period of creativity leading to the concept of his “Current (Magnificent) Obsession” series. The group of 18 designs, which are variations of three basic patterns, illustrated the dynamic interaction between production and the recognition of art. Early in 1986 Ralph took part in a show linked to the conference of the North American Weavers and Spinners Guild. While writing for the catalogue a pad of graph paper lay on the counter beside him. He began to fill in the squares. In one (magnificent) night of spontaneous creativity the 18 designs were completed. Assured that Macdonald Stewart was mounting his solo exhibition in June, three very large quilts in this series were executed in a three-month span, “like automatic quilting… as if the pieces had a life of their own”.
“I have had a lifelong interest in the interaction of fibre and colour, also in expressing myself through a medium which combines design and intuition. My pieces reflect their time…” Ralph writes. He attributes his foundations in imaginative design to the solidity and breadth of the training he received at the Ontario College of Art. A studio extension course first brought him to the University of Guelph and a subsequent degree in Fine Arts. The following year he taught experimental textile design and weaving. In 1978, he studied weaving at the Banff Centre with a grant from the Ontario Arts Council.
Ralph came to Elora and then to Fergus with his wife Louise and two children, Jordan and Carson. His home life immediately reflects his present interests. One is struck with the degree of seclusion and tradition, as the Beney home forms part of a picturesque complex of stone buildings by the Grand River, belonging to the old Blackburn farm. The studio, once a 19th century cattle dipping shed, has large windows looking onto the river
below. One year ago a weaving loom shared the space, reflecting Ralph’s extensive work in weaving and tapestry during the previous decade. Now the loom has gone to Elora weaver Elizabeth Fasken and the spools of yarn have given way to shelves of neatly folded swatches of material.
The living room, with its wood stove, minimal furniture, and wood floors has a clarity and openness similar in quality to the “Current (Magnificent) Obsession” quilts. A child’s rocking chair has a small quilt, and two others are on the floor. A striking square of vibrant colour dominates the wall. This is Ralph’s favourite quilt of the last two and one-half years, ‘Prayer Square for an Astral Traveller’ …freeform, untraditional and humorous, integrating sequins and beads and spinning asteroids. A framed collage speaks of the future; an antique cabinet and hope chest speak of the past.
… like automatic quilting … as if the pieces had a life of their own.
The hope chest represents a strong traditional element in Ralph’s early life in Brantford. It was passed on to him by his grandmother Gladys Beney, an Ontario farmwoman and a fine quilter in the traditional style. No doubt it was partly due to this influence that one day, while designing a tapestry, Ralph suddenly conceived it instead as a quilt. This was made into a crib cover, a welcoming gift for his first- born child. Very gently quilts, as a form of artistic expression, edged out weaving and tapestry.
There is no formula for his intuition. Some of Mr. Beney’s designs are planned and others are spontaneous. Sketches may be made to scale on graph paper, with small squares of relevant colour below, to be matched with pieces of material, samples for the eventual quilt. Other creations like “Prayer Square for an Astral Traveller” take their inspiration from the fabrics themselves, interesting prints and random shapes. The floor of the studio is frequently the design board. Once the cloth is measured and carefully cut, Ralph sews the shapes together on the machine and hangs the finished design from clothespins against the wall. The complementary quilting lines are then marked in with hard soap. These will hold the batting firmly in place, and form a subtext of the greater design in fine stitching. The Elora Quilting Group have received much praise for their fine execution of actual quilting on Ralph Beney’s works.
For the past eight months, Ralph has been learning the difficult but necessary techniques for art promotion in addition to driving his regular school bus route. “This ensures that I will always have a definite schedule around my work”.
And what about the turning toward collage, a fascination one senses below the surface? “That’s on the back burner,” Ralph answers. “Perhaps one day it will gently take over from quilts as quilts edged out tapestry.” But for now he hopes to enjoy again the intense and productive life of the last year. And, of course, he’s looking forward to the summer!
by Beverley Cairns, March 1987
There is no formula for his intuition. Some of Mr. Beney’s designs are planned and others are spontaneous.
UPDATE – 1997
Gears shifted, and the quilt/fabric artist has branched out to include hand and machinery embroidery, with increased attention to surface detail and embellishment, stimulated through workshops with instructors from Maidenhead College (Britain). Since 1992 Ralph has taught Design for Textiles at Wilfred Laurier University, Waterloo, with pleasure and verve.
UPDATE – 2005
Ralph Beney has continued with fibre and thread constructions. “Postcard From Byzantium” was accepted by the Ontario Juried Quilt Show for inclusion in the 2004 Waterloo Quilt Festival and won the Canadian Embroiderers’ Guild award at the 2004 Insights Juried Arts Show. “Waters Known, Uncharted” won two Ontario Needle Network awards at Threadworks’98, the Design for Machine Embroidery Award, as well as the Use of Pattern in Design Award. This piece and numerous others chosen from that show went on to travel across Canada for two years.
Since 2000, Beney has been a member of Connections, a group associated by mutual involvement in stitching and textile art. In collaboration with the Woodstock Art Gallery (W.A.G.), Connections planned to tour a show based on the works of Canadian artist Florence Carlyle. Each participant chose a Carlyle painting on which to develop a textile piece, Beney’s being “Room For One More”. The show ran throughout the 2004 summer season at W.A.G., then toured Woodstock, England. And of course, Ralph is looking forward to another summer! Ralph Beney no longer lives in Fergus, but is nearby in the Waterloo region.