Two events in our area this week train fascinating spotlights on the role of quilts in American culture. Once relegated to the dubious, dusty closet of “folk art,” quilts have been enjoying a Renaissance of appreciation in the decades since Second Wave feminist critics began insisting that the high-art world start treating the homely crafts practiced mostly by women as “real art,” their aesthetic “purity” uncompromised by their utilitarian origins. Nowadays fibers are pretty much universally viewed as “legitimate” artmaking media, and you can see quilt shows hung regularly at mainstream art institutions as prestigious as the Met. The Whitney Museum’s 2002/03 show on “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” knocked the art world’s socks off, inspiring The New York Times to compare the rural Alabama enclave’s surprisingly abstract output to the visions of Klee and Matisse. But it also made art audiences more knowledgeable about the sharecropper community’s tragic history and heroic tenacity, and got them thinking about the deeper significance of cotton as metaphor.
Literally and figuratively, a quilt has many levels; while its beauty and the painstaking work by which it is achieved may stagger us, it also represents the triumph of the human spirit’s hunger for color and expression over the strictures of poverty, and anticipates our contemporary interest in the concept of sustainability.
One master quiltmaker, Harriet Powers, could read and write although she was born into slavery in 1837. Her few surviving fiber works continue to tantalize us to this day, with their mysterious, almost-science-fictiony depictions of astronomical phenomena popping up in scenes from the Bible and workaday life in the South. An expert on Powers’ work and African American quilting in general, artist/historian Kyra Hicks will give a free slide-illustrated talk on the Vassar campus this Tuesday, February 16. Her presentation, “Amazing African American Quilt History as Prelude,” begins at 5:30 p.m. in Room 203 of Taylor Hall.
Hicks’s original story quilts are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City and the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. She is the author of many books based on her extensive research including This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces, Black Threads: An African American Quilting Sourcebook, Quilters’ Questions: A Book of Curious Queries, Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria and Franklin Roosevelt’s Postage Stamp Quilt: The Story of Estella Weaver Nukes’ Presidential Gift.
The latter tale links the Vassar event to another presentation happening in the Henry A. Wallace Center in Hyde Park this Saturday, February 13 as part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum’s Presidents’ Day Weekend lineup of activities. Of particular interest to Rooseveltophiles on account of its ingenious adaptation of FDR’s stamp-collecting hobby into the geometry of quilting, Nukes’s creation is but one example of a popular quilters’ tradition that goes all the way back to George Washington. Sue Reich, author of Quilts Presidential and Patriotic, will share more than 330 images of historical quilts (and related historical documents) depicted in her book and some of the stories behind them in a talk beginning at 2 p.m., followed by a book-signing.
Also highlighted are 43 newly made quilts representing each of the US presidents to date. Each measures 24 inches square, and is constructed in a pattern and fabric historically accurate to the leader’s presidential term of office. Their makers are quilt historians and enthusiasts affiliated with the American Quilt Study Group.
For more info about Kyra Hicks’s talk at Vassar, located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie, visit www.vassar.edu. For more on Sue Reich’s presentation at the Wallace Center, located at 4079 Albany Post Road (Route 9) in Hyde Park, visit www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu.