The Quilt as Art

From "American Trash" to Gallery Walls

By Sara Evans

Detail, Kaleidoscope quilt by Paula Nadelstern

The parameters of American folk art were established by a remarkably small group of artists and collectors in the early 20th century, including Elie and Viola Nadelman, Yasuo Kunioshi, Milton Avery, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Electra Havemeyer Webb. They traversed New England, hunting down whirligigs, mill weights, weathervanes, spinning wheels, samplers, painted furniture, and decoys—and quilts, an infinity of quilts. All of which reflected their idea of American material culture..

Others weren’t so enthusiastic.  When Electra Webb brought home a carved tobacconist’s Indian, her mother, the sugar heiress Louisine Havemeyer, famously exclaimed, “How can you, who have grown up with Rembrandts and Manets, live with such American trash?”

How quilts have evolved from homely, practical bedcovers to a celebrated art form is an intriguing tale. The skills and traditions of quilt making came to America with African women brought here as slaves. They pieced together quilts for their families’ use from “Negro cloth” (mandated for slave’s clothing), and from the scraps of the garments they sewed for their owners, along with bits of sacking. Tiya Miles, who won the National Book Award for her beautifully researched volume, All That She Carried, notes that enslaved Black women crafted the finer patterned quilts that their owners draped across polished mahogany bedsteads.

“It is a madness, if not an irony, that unlocking the history of unfree people depends on the materials of their legal owners,” Miles writes in her groundbreaking book about women and chattel slavery. Her narrative is based upon a cotton sack given by an enslaved woman named Rose to her daughter Ashley in the mid 1800s.

Like many Black women, Miles feels deeply tied to the historically complicated needlework traditions of African Americans. For her, a family quilt is a tangible piece of that heritage. “My attachment to an ancestral quilt,” Miles says, “tethers me to the breathtaking weight of the African American past.”

Some hold that quilts were used as codes for runaway slaves seeking passage on the Underground Railroad.  Certain traditional patterns  (Flying Geese, Bear Paw, Wagon Wheel and North Star), hung on laundry lines, may have signaled “Get ready for your journey,” “Head north,” or “Change out of slaves’ clothing.”  If so, they were flags of hope.

Miles, a Harvard professor and MacArthur fellow, connects these tattered bits of cloth to the expanding cotton trade and explores the trauma of separation—mother from daughter and daughter from grandmother.  Quilts were a record of those bonds, and of a deep longing for home.

Harriet Powers, Story Quilt, courtesy of The Smithsonian

Notable among these early quilt makers was Harriet Powers, born into slavery in Georgia in 1837.  Powers created appliqued story quilts, which she explained with elaborate notes on paper.  Two of these, a Bible quilt and a Pictorial quilt, hold pride of place in the Smithsonian and in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  The Pictorial quilt depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden, apocalyptic falling stars, the Crucifixion and the Book of Job. Power’s work was widely known, admired and exhibited in the 1880’s and sought after by folk art collectors.

Quilting was not only key to social gatherings, it provided income after the Civil War, as Black communities spread across the country.  Over the years, it has been a powerful unifier of Black women.

New Deal Quilts

In 1935, the Works Progress Administration, created a quilt program to help women, particularly immigrants, support their families through the Great Depression. The goals of the WPA was to transform sewing, a skill possessed by many American women, into a sustainable income stream. To begin, women were tasked with making clothes, but when first lady Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for the quilt program, the government issued a guide book with 30 traditional patterns.

The WPA Sewing Project. Photo courtesy of The Living New Deal, Berkeley, CA
A quilt made during the Great Depression

As the U.S. economy struggled, the WPA women machine-pieced and hand-stitched an infinity of quilts. The program was both a romanticized vision of our colonial and pioneer past and evidence of can-do New Deal values, providing a financial lifeline for many families during the Depression. It also provided WPA photographers with rich fodder, as they documented American resourcefulness.

But reviews of the project were mixed. While the project was meant to evoke the charms of a Kentucky quilting bee, the reality was often more that of a Lower East Side sweatshop, according to Jannekin Smucker, author of the forthcoming book, A New Deal for Quilts.

The Journey to Museum Walls

How did quilting work its way up from a housewife’s craft to a respected work of art? Sometimes a single exhibition can engender such a transformation.  In 1981, the Whitney Museum in New York City added a last minute show to its summer schedule:  Abstract Design in American Quilts, showcasing the collection of Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof.  Hung on stark white walls, these sixty-one quilts  were like Rothkos and Pollocks, Twomblys,  and Martins—pure abstraction, rendered in textiles.

Quilt collectors Jonathan Holstein and Gail Ven der Hoof

Visitors saw a domestic craft that was both visually stunning and intellectually challenging.  Lines formed around the block, the Whitney extended the show for weeks, and then, the exhibit hit the road, enchanting viewers all over the country. As Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times, “For a century or more preceding the self-conscious invention of pictorial abstraction in European painting, the anonymous quilt-makers of the American provinces created a remarkable succession of visual masterpieces that anticipated many of the forms that were later prized for their originality and courage.”

In The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm raved that “a quilt that looks merely homey lying at the foot of a bed may become a great work of abstract design when it is hung on an enormous white wall and regarded from a distance.”

In 2003, the entire collection was given to the International Quilt Museum, housed in a stunning modernist building at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.  Leslie C. Levy, the Ardis and Robert James, Executive Director of the museum, says of this donation, “Abstract Design in American Quilts marked a significant moment in art, craft and quilt history. Quilts had long been recognized as supremely functional objects and admired for their beauty, design and workmanship.  The exhibition inspired artists, quilt makers and the museum-going public to experience quilts through a different lens.”

In 2021, the International Quilt Museum held a broad retrospective to mark the 50h anniversary of the Whitney blockbuster, this time featuring quilts from important artists from all over the world.

Pieced qulit by Lucy Mingo, Gee's Bend, Alabama

Some discoveries are a result of happenstance.  On one of his journey through the deep South,  back in 1998, Bill Arnett, a collector and scholar of vernacular African-American art, noticed a quilt draped over a woodpile.  He had come to Gee’s Bend, an isolated and impoverished community.  The local quilters were descendants of former slaves and their skills had been passed down from generation to generation.  Arnett’s find led to an exhibit of sixty quilts made by forty-two women, at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and to another transformative milestone in the evolution of quilts as art.  

As Michael Kimmelman announced in The New York Times,  these are “….some of the most miraculous works of art that America has produced.” Pieced together from scraps of worn-out work clothes, denims and corduroys, cottons and sacking,  the Gee’s Bend quilters demonstrate an extraordinary lineage. Their work is abstract and joyous, and totally original,  combining images from African art with the improvisational riffs of American jazz.

Starting New Traditions

Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem in 1930, during the Harlem Renaissance and raised in a community of artists and writers, musicians and poets.  Often sickly and out of school, Faith turned to the arts. Her mother, Willi, a dressmaker and designer, nurtured her budding talents.  Ringgold would become an artist of staggering scope.  A Caldecott-winning children’s author, an activist in the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, and a passionate feminist, she is best remembered for her legacy of quilts.

Ringgold, Sunflowers Quilting Bee

Her first, “Faces of Harlem,” was painted by on fabric, and then quilted, with help from her mother in 1980.  Three years later, in a quilt titled “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?” Ringgold turned our image of the laughing pancake-making, domestic-worker on its head, extolling the entrepreneurial skills of Black women.  Much of her work explores the sinister legacy of slavery, addressing the inequality that lies at the heart of American culture today.

Forty-plus years of making quilts reflect Ringgold’s activism in the Civil Rights movement as well as her own personal journey.  Her work is sometimes gentle and autobiographical, as in her 1983 quilt, “Tar Beach,” and sometimes angry and graphic, as in her “Story Quilt” series, depicting a long history of violence against Black people. Yet all of her quilts share one quality:  They are heartfelt—and visually compelling. Earlier this year, The New Museum in Manhattan held a major retrospective of her work.

Ringgold's "Faces of Harlem"

Faith Ringgold’s heir apparent is artist Bisa Butler who trained as a painter and was inspired by Ringgold and other artists like Romare Bearden, Kehinde Wiley, and Amy Sherald.  When she was pregnant Butler began making quilts to avoid exposure to paints and solvents, but it took her some time to gain recognition.  Despite the transformative effects of the Whitney exhibit and the showing of the Gee’s Bend Quilts, her earliest quilts were dismissed as “craft” and failed to impress the New York art world. 

Still, Butler kept working in this vein, using fabric to create life-size portrait quilts, of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and the Harlem Hell Fighters, an all-Black brigade that fought in Europe in World War II. A magical quilt depicting four dancing Black women at the turn of the 20th century, was inspired by Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Butler has portrayed other contemporary figures in Black culture like the musician Questlove and the actor Chadwick Boseman.  

Bisa Butler's work, featured in The Smithsonian

She is also an artist on a rescue-mission.  Butler mines the National Archives for pictures of anonymous Black people, who never saw the photographs taken of them and who otherwise would remain nameless and unknown.  In her quilts, these men, women and children look the viewer straight in the eye, forcing us to confront their marginalization and acknowledge America’s troubled past.

An International Movement

Paula Nadelstern (whose name, in German, means “Needlestar”)  is a rock star in the world of contemporary quilting with an unusual way of working. She often takes two years to make a piece, and does not sell what she makes.  Instead Nadelstern designs her own fabrics, which she sells in many different countries and over the years, she has emerged as an international ambassador for quilting, teaching, lecturing, and writing. She is also a member of a four-woman group of quilters, who gather twice a year working  day and night on their projects. And whose tongue-in-cheek motto is “semper tedium”— roughly translated, “as long as it takes.”

In 2009, the American Folk Art Museum in New York gave her a one-woman show, and her work is now in permanent collections all over the world.

Paula Nadelstern. Kaleidoscopic Quilt, courtesy of the artist

For her stunning series of “Kaleidoscope” quilts, Nadelstern draws on the symmetry and colorful surprises of the kaleidoscope, recreating this effect with rich jewel-like material and some extraordinary needlework.

“I try to free myself from a conventional sense of fabric orderliness, seeking a random quality,” she explains. “There are two kinds of surprises: the meticulously planned kind and the happy coincidence. Making kaleidoscope quilts allows me to merge control and spontaneity to spark something unexpected. Often the effects are more wonderful than I imagined, making me both the one who makes the magic–and the one who is surprised.”

Like every other aspect of our lives, quilt-making has been impacted by advances in technology.  The notion of women in a Kentucky barn sharing their truths around a quilting frame has giving way to a global online community where both male and female quilters share their work and their ideas.

Techniques are changing too. Artists like Nadelstern and Butler now use long-arm computerized quilting machines to piece the fabrics together and meld the layers (top, batting, and underside) in programmed or random patterns.  While the legacy of these contemporary quilt makers reaches far back in time, their vision has no limits.  

The debate is over.  The quilt is art.

Sara Evans has written about the arts for The New York Times, Art & Antiques, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Country Living, Fine Arts Connoisseur, and Martha Stewart Living. She is co-author of A Shared Aesthetic: Artists of Long Island’s North Fork.

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