The Practical Art of Quilting
A Review of ‘From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts’ at the Montclair Art Museum
By Martha Schwendener
Quilts made by African-African women in the rural South — historically one of the least represented groups in the institutional art world — have become widely popular in recent decades. The spike of interest coincides with a growing focus on craft and folk art, possibly because of major museum exhibitions, like one at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002 featuring the quilts of Gee’s Bend, a hamlet in southwest Alabama.
Some critics have suggested that the quilts are interesting to contemporary art followers because their geometric patterns recall modernist abstract painting. Others have argued that African-American quilts are really part of the African diaspora of textile production, while still others point out the connection with 18th- and 19th-century European quilting techniques.
“From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts,” at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, does not wade into these issues. Given the scope and history of African-American quilt making, the exhibition is a tiny sampling of 29 quilts. (The Whitney show included 60.) Nonetheless, the show offers examples of the major types and genres.
For instance, there are the geometric quilts from Gee’s Bend, originally the site of a slave plantation. Gee’s Bend quilts, like many in the show, were traditionally made from castoff clothing or cornmeal sacks to help those in unheated shacks keep warm. What has grown out of these humble, utilitarian origins are works like Mary Lee Bendolph’s “Strings” (2003-4), which uses strips of cloth to make a vibrant, animated pattern.
Other geometric patterns include the Pig Pen (or Housetop) and Log Cabin variations. “Pig Pen Quilt,” made by an unknown quilter from Tuscaloosa in the late 20th century, features bright red and white concentric squares with a solid red square at its center. Another Gee’s Bend artist, Plummer T. Pettway, is represented by “Housetop/Strip Quilt” from around 1960 to 1970, which uses a similar concentric-square construction.
Catherine Somerville’s amazing quilt from the 1950s is constructed from men’s denim breeches in the Log Cabin pattern: Half the bars in each “round” or section are light and half are dark. (In a Housetop design, all the bars in a round are the same color and the rounds alternate between light and dark.) Stars are another popular geometric motif. Nora Ezell’s “Star Puzzle” (2001) includes stars of different sizes and showcases her virtuosity at connecting different complex patterns. A cotton quilt attributed to Mary Duncan titled “Lone Star” from around 1950 is an example of the most difficult star pattern to execute: One slip in the construction can cause the star to pucker.
Among the most powerful quilts on view are those in the narrative tradition: illustrative or story quilts. Several quilts follow the precedent set by Harriet Powers, a slave born in 1837 in Georgia whose quilts told stories from the Bible. Yvonne Wells has adopted that tradition, telling the story of the African-American experience during the civil rights movement. Born in Tuscaloosa in 1940, Ms. Wells lived through or witnessed many of the events described in her work.
Ms. Wells’s “Yesterday: Civil Rights in the South III” (1989) is an epic quilt that shows the Mayflower arriving in North America, with a black man rowing a white man ashore. There are little figures at the bottom picking cotton and a lynched man hanging from a tree, as well as an image of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four girls were killed by a bomb in 1963. George Wallace, the Alabama governor and presidential candidate, is depicted in front of a door, attempting to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama, and a circle of civil rights marchers surrounds an image of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Rosa Parks I” (2005) takes a different tack, with the civil rights pioneer dominating the quilt’s composition.
Despite the history documented in Ms. Wells’s quilts and the Alabama quilt tradition’s plantation origins, “From Heart to Hand” positions itself as a celebratory rather than a controversial show. The museum points out that the exhibition coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There are many complicated aspects to the show, however, starting with the attempt to highlight “superstars” of quilting when the practice was originally a collective enterprise. (The wall text points out that quilters now tend to work more individually.)
Furthermore, there is the irony that much of the work here was brought together by a businessman from Birmingham, Mich.: Kempf Hogan, who donated his collection of quilts to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama. What, one wonders, would a show of quilts assembled or curated by someone closer to the tradition reveal?
Nonetheless, the show makes you rethink approaches to art, collecting, museums and curating, beyond the obvious issues of art versus craft and the fallacy of vernacular art being entirely “self-taught”: The improvisations within a shared aesthetic here are very much like other artistic movements the world over, and some scholars have argued that quilters might have studied West African woven fabrics and emulated their patterns to create a stronger link to their heritage.
What is most evident throughout “From Heart to Hand,” however, is that practical boundaries — three layers of fabric stitched together and sized to cover a bed — create the conditions for great art, much the way paintings were born from canvas stretched over a frame, and sculpture from blocks of wood and stone waiting to be hewed.
“From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts From the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts” is on view through Jan. 4 at the Montclair Art Museum, 3 South Mountain Avenue, Montclair. Information: montclairartmuseum.org or 973-746-5555.