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At Tai Sophia, patching up U.S.-India relations

American quilts have been spiced with Indian influences in the exhibit "Pieces as Prayers: Kolam and Kaleidoscope Quilts" at the Tai Sophia Institute's Himmelfarb Gallery. Gaithersburg artist Lauren Kingsland's quilts reflect Hindu religious practices she saw during a trip to India.

The daily religious ritual that impressed her involved Indian women making designs with rice flour on the ground. This ritual is a manifestation of a belief known as Kolam, which states that making the design is itself a form of prayer.

Kingsland's photographs and other research served as the basis for the quilts she is displaying at this gallery in Laurel.

"Kolam represents for me the universal human impulse to create beauty and order," Kingsland says in her gallery statement. "While the inspiration for the design comes from India, the materials and technique are those of the American quiltmaker."

If you looked at these quilts without knowing anything about the specific Indian influence behind them, one thing that might put you in an Indian frame of mind are the dot-and-line calligraphic markings at the center of many of the quilts.

It's just as easy to think of them in American terms, however, because of the techniques deployed to stitch them together.

Also, there are some non-calligraphic quilts relying instead upon kaleidoscopic designs whose colorfully swirling snippets of material are reminiscent of quilt patterns with a long history in the United States.

Kingsland's colorful fusion of stylistic influences in this exhibit extends to her eclectic subject matter. Natural themes predominate, but these range from mundane ecological subjects to starry skies high above. Although there is not much directly representational imagery, her patterns and colors generally get her thematic ideas across.

In "Whale Watching in San Diego," for instance, there are eight readily identifiable whale tails poking through a purple and blue sea. It's nice having those small pieces depicting whale tails to firmly set the scene, but the watery colors in the numerous other quilted pieces already put you in the appropriate mood for whale watching.

Similarly, "Tropical Splendor" incorporates a green-and-red frond-evocative border that reinforces the otherwise abstract design's evocation of lush jungle growth. For even more vegetation, have a look at a much larger quilt, "The Good Earth," that's big enough to cover a bed. Its small strips of green, brown and other earthy colors amount to an organic overdose; a few of the cloth strips are printed with representational depictions of leaves, pears and insects.

The artist leaves Earth behind with "In the Beginning." The spiraling orange hues at the center of this kaleidoscopic design may remind you of star formation; and that impression is furthered by the astral imagery in the deep blue quilt pieces that form a heavenly border, of sorts.

And more than stars are involved in another kaleidoscopic design, "Sing Choirs of Angels," in which figures representing angels are arranged in a circular design at the center. Wherever we are in this quilt, we've traveled a long way from India, Gaithersburg and Laurel.

"Pieces as Prayers: Kolam and Kaleidoscope Quilts" runs through Aug. 27 at the Himmelfarb Gallery at Tai Sophia Institute, at 7750 Montpelier Road in Laurel. Call 410-888-9048 or go to http://www.tai.edu.

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