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Queen-sized quilt covers 80 years of Alaska State Fair History

By KTVA Alaska 7:28 PM August 20, 2016

When Ruth Hulbert was a teenager, she worked as a sign painter at the Alaska State Fair. One day it hit her: she wanted to be one of the artists tapped to create the fair’s annual poster.

She hounded Dean Phipps, the manager of the fair for years. In 2007, after years of lessons from Brad Hughes, a longtime artist for the fair, Phipps relented.

Her first poster, entitled “Fun Amongst the Giants,” captured her larger-than-life childhood memories of the fair.

Then she had another dream: to design a poster for this year’s fair to commemorate its 80th anniversary.

But this was a much bigger vision. It included a quilt with eight squares, each to represent a decade of the fair. There is also a ninth panel, dedicated to the fair’s future.

Hulbert said it’s like an extra candle on a birthday cake.

“I wanted to emphasize how the fair is always a work in progress,” Hulbert said in an interview with the Alaska State Fair. “It’s a work that comes from many hands.”

Hulbert said she drew a lot of inspiration from her own family.

“My parents have this vivid memory of a concert they attended when the band was playing,” Hulbert said about the memory that wound up in the square representing years for 1976 to 1985. “It was a beautiful evening concert and the full moon rose over Pioneer Peak. It was so beautiful that the band just trailed off in the middle of the song and everybody turned around and watched the moon rise.”

Hulbert’s parents took her to the fair as a baby in a backpack, carrying on a family tradition that began with her grandparents, who attended the first fair in 1936.

“The last 30 years of the fairs, I remember pretty well myself because I was there,” Hulbert said. “My goal is that somebody looking at this poster of any age who has been to the fair can say, ‘Oh, yeah. I remember that.’”

One of her favorite squares covers the decade from 1956 to 1965. At the center is an image of John F. Kennedy, who campaigned for president at the fair in 1960. During his visit to the state, he talked about how he loved the Alaskan spirit and compared it to the same “can do” mindset that founded the nation.

Shortly after his speech at the fair, Kennedy got a taste of Alaskan goodwill.

“His car got stuck in the mud,” Hulbert said, adding that Alaskans pitched in to help. “Everybody who was here remembers where they were. My mom’s cousin was patted on the head by Kennedy. I think my uncle shook his hand.”

Her research sparked other ideas for the quilt, like the discovery that one of the roller coasters, once in use at the fair, was called “The Alaskan Economy.”

“The old roller coaster: It goes up and down,” Hulbert said.

You can find it in the panel that covers the period from 1986 to 1995. It’s a subtle detail — The roller coaster is positioned behind a gangly moose silhouette.

“I think it’s a good thing to remind people today, with the budget crisis, the fair is still fun, no matter what the economy is doing,” Hulbert said.

The panel for the most recent decade has cabbage fairies standing around a giant cabbage, which symbolizes how big the fair has grown. It’s tied in with the very first square, which has a pair of hands planting a seedling, a reminder of how dreams can grow big, just like Hulbert’s quilt, which is called the “Work of Many Hands.”

And many hands helped to make this quilt a reality. There were those who helped her with her research, and, perhaps most important of all, Kathy Rockey, president of the Alaska Chapter of the American Sewing Guild, who stitched the fabric together with patterns that matched the decades.

Hulbert said that until she began researching this project, she had no idea quilts have their own language – and this one has quite a story to tell.

But this quilt has another purpose. It’s the grand prize in a raffle to raise money for the fair’s scholarship fund.

In the end, Hulbert said she believes state fairs are more about the future than the past and that they get Alaskans thinking about the possibilities.

“What is this place we’re in? What is it capable of? What are we capable of?” she asked. “What role does a fair have to play in that? And that’s where we come together and celebrate.”

80 Years: Family, Farming and Fun airs this Sunday, Aug. 21 at 4:30 and 10:30 p.m.

Editor’s note: Comments by Ruth Hulbert were made during an interview with the Alaska State Fair, which allowed KTVA to use the footage.

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