Quilts – decoratively attractive and functionally comfortable – are a duo.
Perhaps that’s why the age-old craft of quiltmaking remains more relevant than ever, especially in Utah, where there are currently 60 quilt guilds in operation. Quilting has a long tradition in Beehive State dating back over 150 years.
Yet this form of textile art has even more applications, and a new exhibit at the Art Museum of Utah unveils the multi-layered meaning of the craft to show how quilts function as maps of the past, give insight into the culture and history of their creators, and archiving the voices of historically underdocumented constituencies – women and people of color.
“Handstitched Worlds: The Cartography of Quilts,” an exhibition from the American Folk Art Museum in New York on display in Utah through May, features 18 quilts from the 19th to 21st centuries and encourages viewers to “read the subject in full” in order to discover new threads of the story.
“What I find most exciting about this exhibit is the idea that these quilts tell the story. You see it in the material, the patterns, the symbols, the way they use them, they are the stories of their creators, and it creates a rich experience,” said Luke Kelly, associate curator of the museum’s collections.
Quilts Tell Stories of Struggle
Like much iconic art, these quilts tell stories of hope in the midst of hardship. Sometimes the fight is quietly down to the smallest detail, while elsewhere the human trials are in the spotlight.
For example, the contemporary “Hmong Story Cloth” quilt, by quilter Bao Lee, captures the grueling 15-year “secret war” story of the CIA’s involvement in the Laotian Civil War and the simultaneous war with the Vietnamese, depicting the misfortune of Hmong displacement and the misfortune of the existence of refugees.
“He tells such a powerful story. It shows how very similar people will go to war because of differences in their culture. This shows you that there are modern airports side by side with refugee camps. That tells you a lot,” said Stacey Slager, a Utah resident who visited the museum in March.
Quilts also tell the story of hardship in a more gentle way.
A century before the Secret War, in 1861, a quilter bee in Cross River, New York, was working on the “Cross River Album Quilt” which spoke more subtly of the war. The quilt contrasts hopeful flower-filled panels against a single Union Flag square, nodding to the mixed emotions of Civil War New Yorkers in the months following a defeat. demoralizing at Bull Run.
“Westchester County was among the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of the war. So these quilters more than likely had relatives who had joined the Civil War effort. They initially thought it would be a brief deployment, but it ended up being a four-year war,” said Luke Kelly, explaining how the quilts reveal more than meets the eye. “It’s a wonderful example of the paradox of quilters creating this beautiful thing, but right now they’re talking about very serious stuff and in a totally uncertain time.”
A wartime story is again captured in a different way in “Soldiers Quilt”, made up of woolen uniforms of the British Imperial Army in India between 1850 and 1875, when soldiers were responsible for the upkeep and repair of their uniforms , developing sewing skills that found outlets elsewhere.
Although the artist is unknown, the object bears witness to the nimble hand of a quilt and stands as a monument to a craft that rewards patience, exemplified by the delicate work of layered appliqués, precision rickracking and velvet binding.
“That’s why whenever I’m in a museum, gallery or art exhibit, I’m always drawn to textiles,” said Slager, an advanced knitter and aspiring quilter, who sees similarities between the two professions. “You can engage with the color as well as the feel. There’s an amazing hand feel to these types of arts. It’s very visceral and physical.
Along with the scrupulous detail, the Soldiers’ Quilt embodies a slice of military history from the second half of the 19th century where soldiers were encouraged to take up sewing while recuperating in hospitals, keeping their fingers occupied while they were bedridden. The practice was also promoted outside the hospital as a healthy alternative to soldiers’ less salubrious pastimes, such as drinking and gambling.
At first glance, quilting is an equal opportunity art – but the truth is exposed at the exhibition “Handstitched Worlds” is that women have an outsized presence in the sewing world and that quilts, far from being mere comfort, serve to reclaim the historically suppressed voice of women and people of color.
“If you had a Google Earth time machine, and you could go back and zoom in on houses during that time, you would see women coming together to work on quilts – in the east, in the south from the United States, in the Midwest, even in the new town of Salt Lake. Here they can talk to each other, maybe more unsupervised because there are no men around,” Kelly said.
In this way, “Handstitched” helps secure a vital slice of the historical record, a prerogative emphasized by Oxford scholar Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who explained in her famous 1990 essay “Pens and Needles” how the language of Quilt work provides “a more balanced picture of early American life.
Works like “Star Quilt” by African American Nora McKeown Ezell help balance by mapping lesser-known aspects of minority life in America. The quilt relies on utilitarian materials, like work shirts and repurposed gingham, Kelly explained, which speaks to the ingenuity required of unprivileged upbringings — the fourth of 10 children and the daughter of a miner from Charcoal who learned sewing at a young age to help the family’s livelihood.
“Not something on your grandmother’s bed”
New Orleans native Jean-Marcel St. Jacques, a 12th-generation Louisiana Afro-Creole born in 1972, has reinterpreted the art of quilt making with works that seal the beauty of decadence and create a new genre of “wooden quilts,” including his “Contrary to Hearsay; He Wasn’t the Devil,” which assembles wood and finds items left over from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In the spirit of the patchwork quilting practiced by his grandmother and the junk occupation and gathering learned from his grandfather, Saint-Jacques incorporates recycled materials infused with meaning from past use, bringing the ruin to life in a way that expresses the endurance and resilience of New Orleans.
“When I thought of quilts, I thought of something decorative, or with a historical aspect. I imagined squares sewn together. But when I came here and saw stuff like that? It’s not something on grandma’s bed,” said museum visitor Ra Taylor, who works in the gemstone industry. “A lot of these quilts make you wonder, what was this quilt thinking about? Were they just whimsical? Did she plan it? Those abstract elements appeal to me.
Kelly, associate curator of the museum’s collections, puts it succinctly, “Quilts like this communicate in ways you won’t find otherwise.”