Been contemplating my place in the quilting, embroidery, textile, fiber, and art worlds. Much of my energies are directed at finding the audience that might appreciate the works I choose to make, rather than figuring out what’s popular and just focusing on doing that. So I’m doing quite a bit of research into art history, history history, quilt history, etc. There are several amazing books to read. Like, consider all of Robert Shaw’s art quilt compendiums like Art Quilts: A Celebration. It’s a fat hunk of a decade of art quilts (1993-2003) to ogle and scrutinize. [*Disclaimer: no affiliate links on this blog; and no paid reviews.*]
And there are some videos out there that are worth considering. I’ll tell you about some of them in the coming weeks. Here’s the first and the best, imho.
Back in 1980, Quilts in Womens’ Lives, a brief half-hour of profiles of seven quilters was released. [At that link, you can view two of the interviews.] Focus on the people and their stories; they impart quite a bit of wisdom and truly represent a moment in time—not just a time in the so-called quilt revival, but also a particular moment in the evolution of the roles of women in the workplace and the home.
Each viewer will understand these stories differently, of course. I was pretty young in 1980, but there’s still something so heartbreaking and hopeful…I dunno. I chose to view through the eyes of my mother and grandmother’s generations. The context matters.
Who, Where, When?
Information about these quilters is limited to their quite brief interviews and spotty references available in other media.
These are seven female quilters in the US in 1980. They are all at or nearing retirement age; some began quilting in retirement, while others began as kids or in middle age. Some of these quilters have graduate degrees (MFA, MA, or MEd), while another did not graduate high school. They all seem currently to dwell in the middle class.
These are not categorizable quilters, they are just quilters. They make quite precise traditional quilts, while two of them also create improvisational patchwork. None of these are necessarily “show” quilts.
In order of appearance: Lucy Hilty (photo top right) is a retired California teacher who grew up in a Mennonite community in Ohio. Susanna Calderon (photo bottom left) is a traditional quilter in a rancher community in California. A retired professor of design from the Art Institute of Chicago who relocated to San Francisco, Grace Earl (photo bottom middle) is a new quilter at the time.
Bulgarian feminist and immigrant, Radka Donnell (photo bottom right) appears after some upheaval in her life—she’s dealing with empty nest and a rocky marriage—she’s a professional painter and poet seeking a new creative outlet. Pentacostal quilter Nora Lee Condra (photo top left) speaks to us from California, but is rooted in her Grenada, Mississippi upbringing. And finally, a pair of sisters in the midwest, Hortense and Christine Miller (photo middle right), quilt together making (wedding) gifts for their numerous (about 20) nieces and nephews.
Sadly, though not surprisingly, I’ve found that all the interviewees have passed away now, 34 years after the video was produced. Wish I’d gotten to meet these women sooner. I can imagine sweet-talking myself into their bees just to soak up their techniques and to learn more about their lives.
As I said before, these are fairly traditional quilters. Precision in the patchwork seems to be highly valued and all but one handquilts. In the quilting and binding, there looks to be more of a devil-may-care attitude towards precision. An exception is the Miller sisters who compete with each other in quilting in consistent small stitches quickly.
On the other hand, Donnell was a pioneer in what should be considered the modern quilting movement, improvising in her patchwork and using machine quilting for durability. In her interview she even dwells for a moment on what seems to be a controversy about that choice. [To put this in context, it wasn't until 1989 that AQS--Paducah had their first machine quilted quilt to win best in show; see it here.]
It’s a video about the quilters and their quilts. There is little of note about the quilts; they are mostly the standard repertoire of block patterns going back beyond the 20th century, including a scappy string quilt.
This video goes the extra mile, unknowingly, to refute one of the terrible consequences of the Gee’s Bend sensation: the label of “African-American quilt.” Yes, please stop using that label. Please.
Which ones of these were made by the African-American interviewee?
(Answer: the first and the last in the photo above)
Black folks did not only make (and continue to make) improvisational and poorly constructed (though now we value as spontaneous!) patchwork. Nora Lee Condra, her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother sewed very precise traditional patchwork and she seems not to think this is unusual. They made quilts. There’s no lore about having to be imperfect, there’s no residual animist mysticism. They just made quilts. [The improv quilt (on the right above) is Nora Lee's and seems to be a little rebellion.]
The second quilt in the photo above is Donnell’s. Recall that this video predates the Gee’s Bend brouhaha. Of course, therefore, this video is pre-DS. Radka’s improvisation is fresh and vital, borne of a a primal need to make. You can see more of her quilts over here.
Although it is the focus of the video, these interviews just scratch the surface about why these quilters quilt. There are commonalities and a couple of differences. Hilty, Calderon, Condra, and the Millers quilt to connect with their families. The quilts themselves connect them through the ages via heirloom inheritance and production. Calderon considers herself an outsider among the ranchers, but finds that the quilts are a way to open communication. Earl and Donnell sought new creative artistic outlets. Here are a few snippets that stood out for me:
- “Quilts are big areas to express an idea.” –Hilty
- “Repeated patterns speak to something very deep.” –Calderon
- “You have to have meaningful colors.” –Earl
- “I felt authentic and I spoke for myself in a new way and I was listened to in a new way…I got my voice by staying with quilting and living out the issues that they represented.” –Donnell
- “I found the medium that for me meant home.” –Donnell
- Quilting…”it’s just like prayer.” –Condra
This is a short film that is worth watching a few times. A review like this does not do it justice.
More reviews to come. Here are the ones I have seen: Why Quilts Matter, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend (video link), The Skin Quilt Project, and Stitched. Though these are all of some value, I don’t enthusiastically recommend all of these, as you’ll see.
Do you know of any others? Let me know.
Have a great weekend!