Quilts — decoratively appealing and functionally comfortable — are a twofer.
Perhaps that’s why the time-honored craft of quilt making remains as relevant now as ever, not least in Utah, where there are currently 60 quilting guilds in operation. Quilting has a long tradition in the Beehive State going back more than 150 years.
Yet this textile art form has more application still, and a new exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts is peeling back the craft’s multilayered meaning to show how quilts operate as maps to the past, provide insights into the culture and history of their makers, and archive the voice of historically under-documented constituencies — women and people of color.
“Handstitched Worlds: The Cartography of Quilts,” an exhibition from the American Folk Art Museum in New York on display in Utah through May, showcases 18 quilts from the 19th to the 21st century, and encourages viewers to “read the whole object” in order to uncover unseen threads of history.
“What I find most exciting about this exhibit is the idea that these quilts tell the story. You see it in the material, the motifs, the symbols, the way they’re using them, it’s the stories of their creators, and that creates a rich experience,” said Luke Kelly, the museum’s associate curator of collections.
Quilts tell stories of struggle
Like much iconic art, these quilts tell the stories of hope amid hardship. Sometimes the struggle is tucked quietly into the details, while elsewhere human trials are on full heartbreaking display.
For instance, the contemporary quilt “Hmong Story Cloth,” by quilter Bao Lee, captures the grueling 15-year history of the “Secret War” of the CIA’s involvement in the Laotian civil war and simultaneous war with the Vietnamese, depicting the misfortune of Hmong displacement and the woe of refugee existence.
“It tells such a powerful story. It shows how people who are very similar will go to war because of differences in their culture. It shows you there are modern airports side by side with refugee camps. That tells you so much,” said Stacey Slager, a Utah resident who visited the museum in March.
Quilts also tell the story of trials in softer ways.
A century before the “Secret War,” in 1861, a quilting bee in Cross River, New York, was at work on the “Cross River Album Quilt” that spoke of war more subtly. The quilt contrasts hopeful, flower-filled panels against a single union flag square, nodding to the mixed emotions of New Yorkers during the Civil War in the months after a demoralizing defeat at Bull Run.
“Westchester County was amongst the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of the war. So these quilter’s more than likely had relatives who’d joined the Civil War effort. They initially thought it would be a brief deployment but it ended up being a four year war,” said Luke Kelly, explaining how the quilts reveal more than meets the eye. “It’s a wonderful example of the paradox of quilters creating this beautiful thing, but at this moment when they’re talking about very serious things and in a wholly uncertain time.”
A war story is captured differently again in “Soldiers Quilt,” made of wool uniforms from the British imperial army in India between 1850 to 1875 when soldiers were responsible for the upkeep and repair of their uniforms, developing sewing skills that found outlets elsewhere.
Though the artist is unknown, the object attests to a nimble quilter’s hand and stands as a monument to a craft that rewards patience, shown in the delicate workmanship of layered appliqué, precision rickrack and velvet binding.
“This is why whenever I’m at a museum, or gallery, or art exhibit, I’m always drawn to the textiles,” said Slager, an advanced knitter and aspiring quilter, who sees similarities between the two crafts. “You get to engage with color as well as feel. There’s an amazing hand-feel to these types of arts. It’s very visceral and physical.”
In addition to the scrupulous detail, the “Soldiers Quilt” embodies a slice of military history from the second half of the 19th century where soldiers were encouraged to take up sewing during convalescence in hospitals, keeping their fingers busy while bed-bound. The practice was also promoted outside the hospital as a wholesome alternative to the less salubrious soldier pastimes, like drinking and gambling.
On its face quilting is an equal opportunity art from — but the truth on display at the “Handstitched Worlds” exhibit is that women have an outsize presence in the world of needlework and that quilts, far from mere comfort, serve to reclaim the historically repressed voice of women and people of color.
“If you had a Google Earth time machine, and you could go back and zoom into homes during this time, you would see women coming together to work on quilts — in the East, down in the American South, the Midwest, even out in the new city of Salt Lake. Here they’re able to talk with one another, perhaps more unguarded because there are no men around,” Kelly said.
In this way “Handstitched” helps secure a vital slice of the historical archive, a prerogative emphasized by the Oxford scholar Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who argued in her famous 1990 essay “Of Pens and Needles” how the language of quilt work provides “a more balanced picture of early American life.”
Works like “Star Quilt,” from African American Nora McKeown Ezell, contribute to the balance by mapping aspects of less known minority life in America. The quilt draws on utilitarian materials, like work shirts and repurposed gingham, Kelly explained, which speaks to the resourcefulness required of unprivileged upbringings — the fourth of 10 children and daughter of a coal miner who was taught sewing skills at a young age to help the family livelihood.
‘Not something on your grandma’s bed’
New Orleans native Jean-Marcel St. Jacques, a 12th-generation Louisiana Afro-Creole born in 1972, has reinterpreted the art of quilt making with works that sew beauty out of decay and creating a new genre of “wooden quilts,” including his “Contrary to Hearsay; He wasn’t the devil,” that hews together wood and found objects left behind from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In the spirit of patchwork quilting practiced by his grandmother, and the occupation of junking and collecting learned from his grandfather, St. Jacques incorporates upcycled materials imbued with meaning from previous use, giving life to ruin in a way that expresses the endurance and resilience of New Orleans.
“When I was thinking of quilts, I’m thinking of something decorative, or with a historical aspect. I was picturing squares sewn together. But when I came in here and see stuff like this? It’s not something on grandma’s bed,” said museum visitor Ra Taylor, who works in the gemstone industry. “A lot of these quilts make you wonder, what was this quilter thinking? Were they just being whimsical? Did she plan it out? Those abstract elements draw me in.”
Kelly, the museum’s associate curator of collections, puts it succinctly: “Quilts like this communicate in a way that you don’t find otherwise.”