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Cuesta Benberry Quilt and Ephemera Collection
Cuesta Benberry was one of the twentieth-century's pioneers of research on American quiltmaking and she was the pioneer of research on African American quiltmaking. When she passed away on August 23, 2007, she left behind a legacy of public scholarship and her collections. After her death her family offered her collection to the Michigan State University Museum due to family connections to MSU and Cuesta’s own endorsement of the MSU Museum’s continued dedication to research, collection development, education, and exhibition of quilts made by African Americans and other minority populations. The museum also then acquired Cuesta’s extensive collection of quilt kits. In 2009, the American Folk Art Museum, to which Cuesta had given her Euro-American quilt history collection six years earlier, transferred those collections to MSU Museum.
The Cuesta Benberry African and African American Quilt and Quilt History Research Collection includes:
- over 50 quilts (including family quilts, the only one she made, special quilts made by groups of her friends, and ones by noted artists, Faith Ringgold, Carolyn Mazloomi, and Carole Harris);
- her notebooks and scrapbooks;
- quilt patterns and quilt-related ephemera, guild newsletters, exhibition catalogues, posters, magazines, and journals – including many rare and unique items;
- a large library of books on American and African American history, art, and quiltmaking;
- files relating to Benberry’s own publications and on publications by other authors (including Kyra Hicks, Roland Freeman, and the authors of Hidden in Plain View); and hundreds of notes, clippings from magazines and newspapers, and photographs that encompass general African American history, African American artists, museums and exhibitions with an African American focus, and, of course, quilts, quilt exhibitions, and quiltmaking.
- over 200 quilt kits (typically including instructions and the fabrics needed to complete a quilt top).
The Cuesta Benberry/American Folk Art Museum Quilt Research Collection includes:
- a large library of books on American history, art, and quiltmaking;
- scrapbooks and photographs;
- clipping files from magazines and newspapers;
- quilt patterns and quilt-related ephemera, guild newsletters, exhibition catalogues, posters, magazines, and journals – including many rare and unique item and
- Research notes and files.
More about Cuesta Benberry and her life of research, collecting, and scholarship…
Cuesta (nee Ray) was born on September 8, 1923 in Cincinnati, Ohio. When she was three, she moved to her grandmother’s home in St. Louis, Missouri, a city that became her lifelong home. In 1951, she married George Benberry and together they had one son, George, Jr.
An introduction to her husband’s family’s quilts ignited a curiosity about the origins of the patterns and soon Cuesta was embarked on what became a lifetime pursuit. Cuesta discovered and joined a network of pattern collectors who participated in pattern exchanges, including exchanges known as round robins. Because she was not a quiltmaker, many of her round robin friends not only shared a pattern but also gave her a finished quilt block. Soon she amassed both a study collection of hundreds of blocks and had established a network of friends who were also interested in quilt pattern history.
Before long, Cuesta was also corresponding with quiltmakers, quilt historians, curators, archivists, rare book dealers, and collectors. She was also visiting businesses connected to quiltmaking, quilt exhibitions, and artists in their homes or workshops. As her research progressed, she kept notebooks, created files on artists, maintained files of correspondence with artists and other researchers, and collected exhibition catalogues, flyers, pamphlets, and any printed piece of information that was related to quilt history.
In the early 1960s, Cuesta was prompted by her friend Dolores Hinson to look into the histories behind quilt block designs and to write and publish what she found. In 1970, she published her first article for Nimble Needle Treasures and then went on to publish articles in many, many popular publications. Cuesta’s articles in these special interest publications were among the first anywhere to discuss topics of quilt history. She had also become passionate about the seriousness of the endeavor and the need to document and portray quilt history with an intellectual and scholarly rigor.
In 1976 Cuesta realized that, in that U.S. Bicentennial era, “there was a great deal of information about ethnic groups in America and how one should be proud of one’s ethnic heritage…I thought I ought to study about African American quilts. Well, it was not an easy task because there was nothing in the literature. There was so little, so little.” Undaunted, she jumped into this new and relatively unexplored realm of research. Before long she was publishing about African American quilts, and serving as a consultant to nearly every major exhibition of African American quilts.
From 1988-1993, Cuesta wrote for the newsletter of the Women of Color Quilters’ Network, an important growing network of artists and historians interested in African American quilt history. In 1991, she curated the exhibition Always There: The African American Presence in American Quilts and authored a book of the same title. In 2000, she wrote A Piece of My Soul: Quilts by Black Arkansans.
Cuesta’s work in quilt history has been honored by many awards. She was inducted into the Quilter’s Hall of Fame in 1983 and was selected as a Quilt Treasure in the on-line multimedia-project of Michigan State University and the Alliance for American Quilts. In 2004, Cuesta was the recipient of the Distinguished Scholar’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her groundbreaking research on the history of African American quiltmaking, awarded by the Anyone Can Fly Foundation. When she passed away, tributes to her contributions flowed in blogs, listserves, memorials, and in newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Cuesta Benberry’s relationship to the MSU Museum…
Scholars at the Michigan State University Museum had, over the years, consulted with Cuesta on general quilt history and on questions related to a major 1980s research and exhibition project on Michigan’s history of African American quiltmaking. Cuesta contributed an essay to the book which resulted from the research and she visited the resulting exhibition.