By Melissa Mitchell It's no accident that most of the quilts in two upcoming exhibitions at the UI Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion are fashioned from irregularly cut pieces of fabric that form unexpected and seemingly random patterns. There is a rhyme. There is a reason. And there is a cultural rhythm that threads its way through the quilts included in "Who'd A Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking" and "Covering Our Heritage: African-American Quilts of Champaign-Urbana," on view Friday through Feb. 27 at the museum. The rhyme, reason and rhythm inherent in both the heirloom and contemporary quilts emanate from a singular influence characteristic of many other African-American art forms - improvisation. "Improvisation - in art, music and dance - is a distinct African aesthetic," said Linda Duke, the museum's director of education. "In these African-American quilts, unexpected juxtapositions of color and shape reflect that aesthetic. Other traditional African textile forms also show up, such as striking applique motifs or patterns that resemble strip-woven cloth." "Who'd A Thought It," a traveling exhibition of 27 quilts, was organized by the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum and guest-curated by collector Eli Leon. The quilts, dating from the 1930s through the 1980s, were drawn from his collection. "Distinctly different from quilts in the European-American tradition, the quilts in the exhibition use improvisation and asymmetry to energize and spiritualize design," Duke said. "Some have given loving warmth and joyful beauty to generations of children." Children of local quiltmakers have benefited similarly from the quilts featured in "Covering Our Heritage," a smaller exhibition organized by the UI museum to provide a local perspective on the artistry and tradition of quiltmaking. Some quilts were made recently; others are family heirlooms. "What's interesting is the heritage element of these exhibitions," said Duke, who is curating the local show. "When I first looked at the catalog that accompanies 'Who'd A Thought It,' I was moved that elements of African aesthetics and spirituality have survived in American homes over a period of years. The beauty of the shows is their sense of cherishing memories of things passed down from one generation to another. It focuses people's attention on something that's very fragile." To make the community more aware of this cultural tradition, Duke coordinated outreach activities in conjunction with the exhibitions. Participating in the efforts are area teachers, schoolchildren, a community center and a radio station. One component of the outreach involved about 60 University High School students. Working with Linda Neuman, station manager of WEFT-FM in Champaign, students in Barbara Wysocki's seventh- and eighth-grade social studies class initiated an oral history project to document the efforts of local quilters. The students interviewed the quilters - who meet regularly at the Douglass Center Annex in Champaign - then produced audiotapes that mix interview segments with music and narration. "These audio programs will be available to people who visit the exhibition and will enhance understanding and appreciation of the quilts on display," Duke said. Duke also led a workshop for K-12 teachers in November. The workshop was designed to "help teachers develop awareness of local heritage, African-American heritage and non-text sources of history such as oral traditions," she said. Other events planned to coincide with the exhibitions: - Quilting demonstrations, from 10 a.m. to noon each Thursday, Jan. 27 through Feb. 24 in the museum galleries. - "From First to Final Thunder: African-American Quilts, Monuments of Cultural Assertion," a lecture by Robert Farris Thompson, a scholar of African and African-American art at Yale University, 3 p.m. Jan. 30, 141 Commerce West Building. - A talk by Gregor Williams, visiting scholar of Caribbean cultural history, 3 p.m. Feb. 20, 62 Krannert Art Museum. A native of St. Lucia, West Indies, Williams will explore the rich African cultural heritage of that region. - "African-American Culture and the Work of a Japanese Writer," a talk by Kazuko F. Goodman, 7 p.m. Feb. 23, 62 Krannert Art Museum. Goodman is a leading scholar and translator of African-American literature in Japan who has focused on the work of female African-American writers. In addition, a related exhibition, "Rivers and Memories: Two African-American Artists," will be on view Friday through Feb. 27, and will be presented at the museum and the UI Library. The exhibit is co-curated by Duke and Rosemary Stevenson, UI Afro-Americana bibliographer and professor of library administration. "Each portion of 'Rivers and Memories' reveals some aspect of African American heritage and experience," Duke said. "The rivers of the title are metaphors for individual lives and collective human history - an idea beautifully expressed in the poem 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers,' by Langston Hughes. The memories - both cultural and personal - are evoked through the work of writers, poets and visual artists in displays at the Library and at the Krannert Art Museum." The Library exhibit, displayed in the main corridor cases on the first floor, will highlight the writings of African-American authors. The art museum exhibition, located in the vestibule near the Sixth Street entrance, will feature two-dimensional work by Muneer Bahauddeen and mixed media painting by Barbara Prezau. Bahauddeen and Prezau are contemporary African American artists who have "explored aspects of traditional African art and thought in their work, with distinctive and highly effective results," Duke said. The gallery hours of the Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays; and 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays.