This time of year, many of us feel the hibernation instinct and fight the urge to hide under the covers during the short dark days. Viewing an exhibition of quilts could provide needed comfort. The Montclair Art Museum is exhibiting “From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts” through Sunday, January 4.
The exhibit provides an interesting counterpoint to the Morven Museum’s current exhibition “Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860” (see U.S. 1, October 1) and provides a preview of an upcoming quilt-making event at the Arts Council of Princeton.
“From Heart to Hand” includes star quilts and log cabin designs, geometric patterns that look like modern art, and even quilts depicting baseball diamonds and the story of Noah’s Ark. Quilts are a quintessential American art form, as the exhibition demonstrates, and historically African-American women have been among the least represented art groups in the institutional art world. The timing of the 30 colorfully designed quilts by African-American quilt makers, primarily from West Alabama, coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“These quilts have an amazing graphic power and offer an important visual narrative reflecting African-American social history,” says Montclair Art Museum (MAM) director Lora Urbanelli.
Part of the permanent collection of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama, most of the quilts were made between the mid-1950s and the end of the 20th century and represent themes in traditional quilt-making with roots in African textiles. The exhibition includes examples of pieced quilts and applique, as well as the improvisational techniques and use of unconventional materials that are common practice for contemporary quilt makers.
They are grouped in three sections: “Tradition: Patterns from the Past,” “Improvisation: Practical Invention,” and “An Unconventional Canvas: The Quilts of Yvonne Wells,” a group of story quilts by the Tuscaloosa quilt maker who is one of Alabama’s most respected self-taught artists.
“The creators of these quilts are among the most respected artisans of this medium, both within the region and nationally,” says Gail Stavitsky, MAM’s chief curator. “Quilt-making is often a community-based art form, in that older relatives or neighbors instruct younger quilters in the skills and aesthetics that the family uses to design, assemble, and stitch.”
Each quilt maker brings her own personal vision to the process. Though their origins and materials may be humble, quilts have become regular features in art museums over the past several decades. There has been a rising interest in quilts made by African-American women, many of whom hail from isolated rural areas. Several communities in Alabama, including Gee’s Bend and Eutaw, have received attention as a result of scholarship that focuses specifically on the historic context of these quilts, as well as a new appreciation for their aesthetic appeal.
When 60 quilts from Gee’s Bend were exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman referred to them as not just “eye-poppingly gorgeous” but “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”
The praise surprised the women, many of them descended from slaves. About 80 miles southwest of Montgomery, Alabama, Gee’s Bend — a former slave plantation — is like an island, and access was primarily by ferry until the 1960s. The ferry was eliminated when it was discovered that African-Americans were using it to get to civil rights marches or to register to vote. The community’s insularity led to a distinctive quilting style. The abstract geometric patterns were stitched out of old denim jeans, cornmeal sacks, Sears corduroy swatches, and hand-me-down leisure suits — whatever materials were on hand.
“Quilts made of worn dungarees sometimes became the only mementos of a dead husband who had nothing else to leave behind,” wrote Kimmelman. “They provided comfort and warmth, piled on top of cornshuck mattresses or layered six or seven deep for the cold nights.”
A 2010 play, “Gee’s Bend,” about a woman who sold nine of her handmade quilts for $10 to escape an abusive husband and racial oppression, ends with her remarking, in her later years: “We made them ‘cause we had nothing else.”
When traditional quilts, made for warmth, were draped over beds, patterns such as Lone Star and log cabin became a source of pride and added vibrancy to a room. Of all the geometric patterns found in quilting, the star is probably the most common. The Lone Star pattern is considered the most difficult — one mistake in the early stages of construction can cause the star to pucker. Traditionally, these patterns have been respected as one of the real challenges of quilt making and out of reach of the average quilter.
Mary Lee Bendolph, one of the renowned quilters from Gee’s Bend, has seen her work featured on United States postage stamps, in exhibitions of Gee’s Bend quilts, and her own solo show. Yet even with her work being displayed in museums across the country, Bendolph does not view her quilts as art, but as practical household goods. The quilt featured in this exhibition is one of Bendolph’s variations of a strip quilt, composed of simple solid-color scraps.
Plummer Pettway was also part of the group of quilters from Gee’s Bend. She worked with scraps she brought home from the Freedom Quilting Bee facility in Rehoboth, Alabama. Despite the attractiveness of her quilts, Plummer insisted that she didn’t “quilt for pretty,” but to keep her family warm.
The text panels in the exhibition offer technical information on the construction, style, and history of the quilts. A “talking quilt” is one that conveys a Bible verse. People from the Gee’s Bend area use the term Housetop for a quilt design dominated by concentric squares. Other quilters call the same design Pig Pen, particularly when the center block is of four or six patches. There’s even an “Everybody Quilt,” a sampler of different patterns and leftover blocks from other quilts. The term “Everybody Quilt” usually means that a group of quilters contributed, but in this case it was completed by one artist.
As quilts travel from region to region, they evolve stylistically, according to exhibition materials. “Colors may become more significant to one culture or region than another and therefore are more frequently utilized. Design elements of the quilt square may be rearranged, while maintaining the same generalized pattern, and might take on new names and meanings with the variation.”
As artists, these quilt makers were compelled to do something more innovative, to express their own feelings using symbols of their lives. It is interesting to see how these elements take shape in the work of contemporary quilt maker Yvonne Wells. Although Wells’ mother quilted, she never taught it to Yvonne. Beginning in 1979, Wells began with existing patterns in her quilt making, creating practical quilts for her own use. These were pieced and hand-sewn according to traditional methods.
Around 1983 the quilts created by the retired educator began to assume a narrative approach, and she dispensed with most of the pieced quilt restrictions, adopting the technique of applique. She takes inspiration from the bible, the civil rights movement, and popular culture. Featured here are quilts of Elvis, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, and Helen Keller. Wells may do up to 20 quilts in a month, staying up all night because she finds the work so satisfying.
“The Higginbothams” depicted in the eponymous quilt are a fashionable couple dressed in their Sunday best. Wells described the personality of each Higginbotham: “This is David and Lois Higginbotham, and they just wanted to say ‘hello’ to you. Mrs. Higginbotham has on a matching purse and shoes that also match the buttons on her dress. She is wearing a stunning hat with golden earbobs.” The Higginbothams mirror the quilter’s world and people she knows.
Many of Wells’ works go beyond, dealing with abstract themes of emotion and human relationships, and Wells’ techniques have been compared to those of painters. Her compositions may exist in her head until all basic elements are cut out and laid on top of the fabric square that is destined to become the quilt top. From there, she adds fabric accents, found objects, beads, and other brick-a-brack. All of Wells’ quilts are completely handmade, without a sewing machine.
When finished, the work resembles a relief painting, ready to be hung on a wall, interpreted and appreciated as a work of art.
From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montclair Art Museum, 3 South Mountain Avenue, Montclair. Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Through Sunday, January 4. $10 to $12. www.montclairartmuseum.org.
More Fabric Work:
The Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, will offer a class, Memory Quilts: A Stitch in Time, beginning Friday, January 23. Memory quilts are made from treasured items as a way to keep the memory of a special person or time gone by. Participants will work with anything from baby clothes to adult clothing, ties, tea towels and family linens. The class is perfect for beginner sewers looking to learn how to use the machine or hand sewing techniques. For details, visit artscouncilofprinceton.org.
Morven Museum & Garden, “Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860,” through March 29, 2015, a landmark exhibition focusing on the important contribution of New Jersey in the creation of schoolgirl needlework in the 18th and 19th centuries. With more than 150 works on view, this exhibition undertakes the first survey of schoolgirl needlework completed in the state or by New Jersey girls prior to 1860. Morven is located at 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. $5-$6. For more information, call 609-924-8144 or visit www.morven.org.