There’s more to quilting than squares of fabric, and the proof is at the American Folk Art Museum.
Drawn from the museum’s collection of some 600 quilts, the exhibition (which runs through October 29) features patchwork quilts made from fabric scraps, whole-cloth quilts adorned with whimsical embroidery, and works ” quilt-adjacent” that use condom wrappers, photos, or kimono fabric. The 35 works on display, from the 19th to the 21st centuries, are a breathtaking combination of technical art, history and storytelling. In fact, explains co-curator Emilie Gevalt, chair of collections conservation and curator of popular art, the exhibition is called “What this quilt knows about me” and it is organized not by chronology or by technique, but by their stories or their stories.
From the 19th century wedding quilt that took 20 years and 31,000 pieces of fabric, to a family album quilt detailing life on the farm, from the understated (and strangely modern) geometric quilts of the Amish to the exuberant narrative and fanciful of biblical stories or Greek myths, this show shows how far human creativity and expression can go with fabric, needle and thread.
Why quilts are important
The exhibition’s mission, Gevalt said, is to prove that quilts are truly art objects. “It’s underrepresented as an art form because of the context – it’s created by women – but it’s really a dynamic medium,” she says. Even today, the sober and refined quilts still made by Amish women, scattered throughout the exhibition, could come from the workshop of a Mondrian. The exhibition features spectacular, almost psychedelic works by modern artists like that of Paula Nadelstern. Kaleidoscopic xvi: More is More, a series of trips, mandala-like designs that she painstakingly hand-stitched on her kitchen table in Brooklyn. “Light from Far Away Space” by Japanese artist Setsuko Obi is a dreamlike galaxy dotted with stars. A closer look reveals that the pieces of fabric (recovered from vintage kimonos) are folded like origami and carefully sewn together.
But Gevalt says that long before museum exhibits, quilts were always exhibits, special items reserved for guests or displayed at state fairs — like the Sacred Bible quilts made by a woman in Georgia. Some quilts were intended to raise funds. “You pay your nickel or dime and put your name on a square, and then the quilt will be drawn to buy a new boiler for the church,” Gevalt says. (Even today, “quilt bingo” is a popular fundraising activity in many communities.)
The exhibition is divided into thematic rooms, but from all sections, the most interesting room is the Narrative Threads room. After all, Gevalt says, “we chose quilts with the most compelling stories. » Each work tells its story in pieces of silk, cotton or taffeta, embellished with embroidery. The stories range from the biblical to the pagan, from a family album about life on a farm to a triumphant wedding quilt.
For example, the Homespun Untitled Family History quilt by Hystercine Rankin (1929-2010) is a poignant family album quilt about life on the farm, told in simple panels with embroidered captions like “Mother and Sally Picking Cotton” or “Papa Joe Making Syrup.” In 1997, she received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Greek Myths Quilt by Dr. Raymond F. Bellamy, a University of Florida professor who specializes in needlework, looks more like a series of one-panel comic books with embroidered commentary sarcastic. (A spider with the head of a woman bears the caption “Well, Ariadne, you won this spinning contest.”) Nearby, a Noah’s Ark quilt shows a fanciful parade of animals, insects and Noah’s family arranged around the ark.
The stories in the quilts are almost as fascinating as the stories. The beautiful Whig Rose and Swag Border quilt, with its intricate stitching patterns, was until recently a case of mistaken identity. A note pinned to the back revealed that the true creators were two enslaved sisters from Antebellum Kentucky.
The magnificent wedding quilt of German immigrant tailor Carl Klewicke (1835-1913) is a jubilant and breathtaking composition of birds, fountains, flowers and stars with a vibration akin to stained glass. Made up of some 31,000 pieces of leftover silk, taffeta, toile, and satin gleaned from fabric scraps, Klewicke began this quilt when a little girl was left on her doorstep in Corning. His family adopted the child, and he spent the next 20 years working on the quilt he would give her on her wedding day.
The most modern of themes, “Reinventing Tradition” explores contemporary artists who are creating “20th century riffs” on quilting as an art form. “We wanted to think outside the box, but we had quilt-like features,” says Gevalt.
Here you will find a woven and patchwork wall hanging made by Dindga McCannon of the seminal (but little-known) musician Mary Lou Williams. It is a richly textured work using paint, photographs and colorful strips of fabric, bling and embroidery intertwined to the beat of a jazz beat.
On the opposite wall, two small canvases, no bigger than an index card, tell a story of redemption. Raymond Materson began creating intricate miniature embroidery while serving seven years in prison. A plastic container lid reminded her of her grandmother’s embroidery hoop. He used found objects and colorful threads unraveled from socks to embroider images. From selling his sports team logos to other inmates for cigarette money, his work gradually took on more complex subjects and techniques until, thanks to his freedom, his works began to sell for tens of thousands of dollars – and promise a donation to the Museum.
In the works since 2022 and co-curated by Warren Family Assistant Curator Sade Ayorinde, the exhibition is an object lesson in the power of the creative spirit to stimulate self-expression even in the most humbling circumstances, using old forms and traditions to create something new. “Quilting has never lost its appeal. It is a rich art form that has an emotional resonance that makes the form almost magical.”