BACK TO ESSAYS
Lone Stars: A Legacy of Texas Quilts: A New Perception of Quilts
To the everlasting surprise of many old-time quiltmakers, quilts recently have been accorded the status of an art form—just as Navajo weavings and basketry, jazz, modern dance, African tribal art, and many folk arts have been—and have reached that status through the same slow, evolutionary patterns of acceptance. At first quilting was something done by individuals outside the mainstream of art, then it was discovered and extolled by a very few truly enlightened individuals who were able to see it without blinders of artistic preconceptions, then it was seized upon as avant-garde, and only since then has it begun slowly drifting toward the mainstream.
The terms “folk” or “decorative” art have until recently been appended to any discussion of quilts as art. Beatrix R. Rumford describes the folk art tradition in The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection: In the United States folk art has become a widely accepted term for describing various creative efforts of amateurs and craftsmen working outside the mainstream of formal art. The typical folk artist has little understanding of the rules for rendering correct linear perspective, anatomy, color balance, or the proper use of light and shadow. Unfamiliar with the academic solutions for such problems, a successful folk artist somehow solves the technical difficulties he encounters in his work and intuitively produces a satisfying picture, carving, or household furniture.
Perhaps the most famous American folk artist was Anna Mary Robertson Moses, who originally began her artistic endeavors as a decorative painter, embellishing household furnishings such as tables, and then moved on to become a fiber and needle artist in the 1930s when she made “yarn pictures.” Only later was she encouraged to try paints and canvas. In Grandma Moses, Otto Kallir says that “in contrast to Europe, no art schools had existed in America until well into the nineteenth century. People who painted had to find their own technical and artistic means of expression.”
In other words, American folk artists were disconnected from the accepted body of art and outside the mainstream of art history. Because they did not know the existence of rules, they frequently made up their own to solve the design problems they encountered. Discussing a land-mark exhibition of American folk art paintings that traveled to Europe in 1954 under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution as American Painting: Peintres Naifs from 1700 to the Present, Kallir points out that “each of these untaught artists had found his individual way of expressing ideas of his time and experiences of his daily life.” (pp. 116 – 117).
Early quilt artists, and some working today, broke rules they never knew existed, just as Grandma Moses did. Their innovative, sometimes radical, often powerful designs were not conceived to make a statement or to flout tradition. Instead, they were worked out to solve a particular design problem or to achieve an especially desired effect. Like Grandma Moses, too, quilters expressed themselves in their work; they did not talk about art, they made it. With no access to a body of art history or a philosophical underpinning to their work, they simply produced the designs they saw about them in nature or imagined in dreams and recalled from memory. With no knowledge of the avant-garde, they have been seen to have been in the vanguard of many of the movements in modern art—“such phenomena as ‘op’ effects, serial images, use of ‘color fields,’ a deep understanding of negative space, mannerism of formal abstractions and the like,” according to Jonathan Holstein in The Pieced Quilt (p. 13).
Cecilia Steinfeldt in Texas Folk Art notes that, “although naïve artists and craftsman have always existed, their work was largely ignored until the beginning of the twentieth century. Actually, it was the artists who espoused the new vernacular of ‘modern’ art who were among the first to recognize the merit in the work of the naïve, or untrained, artist who had been expressing himself freely for centuries” (pp. 158 – 159).
Those old-time quiltmakers “in most cases…would not have dreamed of presenting themselves as ‘artists’ or their… needlework as ‘art’,” as Mirra Bank put it in Anonymous Was a Woman (p. 9). They would have been surprised to hear that quilts are art, whether folk, decorative, or otherwise. Such surprise perhaps should be attributed to semantics, however. For while art was a term seldom if ever used by these women to describe their work, rigorous and virtually universal standards were applied in evaluating a quilt, fine quilts were highly valued and carefully treated by women, women often signed and dated their quilts, and, from the time of Maria Betancour through Martha Washington and on, quilts were frequently enumerated as special bequests in women’s wills. Women quilted because they were taught to quilt and because quilts were needed, but beyond that they found time to quilt for their own pleasure and that of others and for an expression of artistic sensibility that they would have been hard pressed to articulate but that was no less valid for being undefined.
Says Lillian Baker Carlisle in Pieced Work and Appliqué Quilts at Shelburne Museum: Women of every earthly ranking and nationality, however gifted with intellect and genius or endowed with beauty, have in common the peculiarity of needlework. From time immemorial they have always had…handiwork ready to fill up the gap of every vacant moment…The slender threads of wool, silk, and cotton keep all the women united with the small and familiar interests of life and shared human sympathy which runs along this thin line also keeps all women of the past century and a half, was of necessity the ‘meat and potatoes’ kind of handiwork—the spinning and the weaving, the sewing of clothes for every member of the family. But after the necessities had been coped with, then a housewife was free to create an object of great beauty in her eyes—and many of them turned to quiltmaking to fulfill this ambition. (P. iii)
So both the needle art tradition and the folk art tradition were reservoirs from which quilters could draw. And sometimes an exquisitely crafted quilt by an experienced needlewoman or a quilt created with a unique folk sensibility emerged that was undeniably something other than utilitarian: it was art, with no qualifiers.
For a brief but enlightened and impassioned discussion of the ways in which women artists, especially quilt artists, have been dismissed and excluded from their rightfgul place in art history, even that concerned with decorative and folk art, until very recenty, we highly recommend Patricia Mainardi’s Quilts: The Great American Art first written as an essay for The Feminist Art Journal in 1972:
Women have always made art. But for most women, the arts highest valued by male society have been closed to them for just that reason. They have put their creativity instead into the needlework arts, which exist in fantastic variety wherever there are women, and which in fact are a universal female art, transcending race, class, and national borders. Needlework is the one art in which women controlled the education of their daughters, the production of art, and were also the audience and critics, and it is so important to women’s culture that the study of various textile and needlework arts should occupy the same position in Women’s Studies that African Art occupies in Black Studies—it is our cultural heritage. (Pp. 1 – 2)
The experience of quilting provides women today with a means of connection with the only needle art that has been, albeit slowly, universally recognized as a unique and valid means of transmitting artistic mediums.
But along the movement to view quilts as art is another equally important one: to view quilts as a sociological, cultural, and historical record. Two important museum exhibitions, one, Optical Quilts, in 1965 in the Newark Museum and another, Abstract Design in American Quilts, in 1971 in the Whitney Museum, laid the ground work for the perception of quilts as art. An event, the American Bicentennial in 1976, and another exhibition, American Quilts: A Handmade Legacy, in 1981 at the Oakland Museum, were the cornerstones for the identification of quilts as cultural and historical artifacts.
Thomas Frye, chief curator of history at the Oakland Museum, notes that at the Whitney exhibition, where quilts were displayed as paintings, “we saw quilts as art, as aesthetic expression, separated from their specific social and cultural context. Most subsequent exhibitions have examined quilts from this perspective. As visually stimulating as the exhibitions have been, they have left sizable gaps in our knowledge.”
The Oakland exhibition sought to show quilts as they might have been used in everyday life, in relation to other aspects of a woman’s existence and interests. In differentiating the exhibition from others, he said: “For too long quilting has been neglected as a serious part of the study of women’s history. While quiltmaking was traditionally utilitarian and focused on family and community, it has been developed by women into a recognized art form exploiting pattern, texture and color in ever-varying forms. But quilts have a significance beyond the aesthetic which this exhibition, the catalogue, and the accompanying film ‘Quilts in Women’s Lives,’ seek to explore. By examining the role of quilts in women’s lives, patterns of our culture come to light in ways unseen by most academic historians.”
Many quiltmakers have stated that they first perceived quilts as something other than bed coverings when they attended quilt shows and saw quilts hung vertically. All their work on quilts and all their experience in appreciating quilts had been in looking down on them, at an angle, with proportions of the overall design distorted or hidden by being rolled on quilting frames, clasped in an embroidery hoop, tucked around pillows, or draped down the sides of a bed.
When they saw quilts displayed vertically and fully extended at quilt shows and, within the last twenty-five years, in museums, their perceptions and those of the general public began to change. They began, both literally and figuratively, to look up to quilts. This progression of quilts from the bed to the wall has been both a cause and an effect of the great change in perception of quilts as aesthetic achievements and cultural and historical markers.
For some contemporary quiltmakers, there is little to no intention of ever making a quilt that will cover a bed. All their quilts are “wall quilts,” generally a smaller size than bed quilts, and are designed and made to be displayed on a wall, as art. Other quilters working today have gone one step further, taking quilts from the bed to the wall to the back, as they have applied their medium to embellish garments that make a statement not only about the quilt as art but also about its relation to the lives and activities of the women for whom the wearable art is designed.
John Perrault, in his introduction to McMorris and Kile’s The Art Quilt, has theorized that photography also served to change the perception of quilts and to validate the concept of quilts as art. In that we concur wholeheartedly. We have been started occasionally to the crystallization of a quilt’s design components that takes place when a fine photograph of it is viewed. While the dimension and tactility of a quilt can only be suggested by even the best photograph, a compensating distillation and distancing is achieved that makes it easier to evaluate a quilt’s visual appeal quite apart from its physical or emotional appeal.
It is through the third eye of the camera, whether still or moving, that the beauty and graphic impact of quilts will truly achieve a mass audience, for even the largest quilt show or museum exhibition can reach only thousands, while quilt books, videos, and television programs can theoretically touch millions. And it is the combination of photography and narrative that will acquaint or remind those millions of the unique place that quilts have occupied in the minds and hearts of women and it the heritage of our country and our state.
Text reproduced with permission from: “A New Perception of Quilts,” Lone Stars: A Legacy of Texas Quilts, Vol. 2, Karolina Patterson Bresenhan and Nancy O'Bryant Puentes, p. 23-25.
Texas Quilt Search
University of Texas at Austin, Texas Sesquecentennial Quilt Association
Texas Quilt Search
University of Texas at Austin, Texas Sesquecentennial Quilt Association
Austin; Texas; United States
The Texas Quilt Search quilts represent some of the finest quilts made in Texas or brought to Texas.
quilted in 1975
Pennington, Annie M...
April 30, 1948
When I Put Out to...
Headrick, Felma Gre...
Little Women Quil...
The Great Eagle Q...
Snyder, Lotta Meeks...
quilted in 1961
Lone Star Quilt
Brock, Marguerite E...
Henderson, Lillie A...
Longhorns on the ...
Blackstone, Helen G...
Yellow Rose of Te...
Country Cousins Q...
Wahrmund, Peggy Sti...
Tribute to the He...
Harris, Annick Thor...
Texas Wildflower ...
Herndon, Mary Ann J...
Wild, Wild West Q...
Shults, Willoa Stoc...
To Pele, Goddess ...
Kennedy, Beth Thoma...
Mardi Gras Quilt
Lehman, Libby Antho...