You are a tourist when you walk through a museum. You marvel and gawk. Standing in front of a famous statue, you know there is more to the object than its surface. You wonder how the sculptor chiseled away the marble's negative space to reveal the goddess within. Perhaps curators at museums prefer a little intellectual distance between the art and the tourist. Maybe our ignorance intensifies the mystery behind the art.
This gap between art and visitor does not exist when it comes to quilts. We are as familiar with fabric as we are with our own skin. We understand the physics of a needle and thread. We can't see the cotton batting between the front and back of the quilt but there's no mystery to it. Perhaps this is why quilting is called the democratic art.
I visited the Art Institute of Chicago recently and was swept up in the quilt exhibit on display through April 1. The show is titled, "Making Memories: Quilts as Souvenirs". The day I was there, the gallery was nearly void of other visitors and it was so nice to wander freely, closely examining each quilt, and taking photos (it is allowed) with the intent of sharing them here.
The nice museum attendant followed me around and when I set down my bag to take a photo, he warned me. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"Take a photo?" I asked. "I thought it was allowed."
"It is," he said. "I mean leave your handbag on the bench there."
"The room is empty..." I said, looking around.
"Yes, but you never know," he said.
"Are you going to steal my handbag?" I asked him.
He did not steal it but he did end up holding it for me, which helped him relax. I wish I had brought my tripod and reflector, which I'm quite sure he would have been willing to hold for me. Alas, I'm never quite prepared for the circumstances.
Enjoy my slightly blurry photos. We did our best.
THE SETTLING OF THE WEST
This quilt, titled The Settling of the West (below) was stitched by Mildred Jacobs Chappell in 1931-32. It portrays an idealized version of the westward expansion. I've read "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and "Black Elk Speaks," so I know full well this is a fantasy version of our country's westward expansion. But when I was a little girl, I idolized Laura Ingalls Wilder, and wished with all my heart I had been alive at this time.
GLIMPSES OF IRELAND
This quilt, appliqued, pieced, and embroidered by Bryde Glynn in 1984, uses twills and tweeds to capture vignettes that, I think, are composed like little Instagram photos.
FLORIDA PICTORIAL QUILT
This Florida Pictorial Quilt, (below) made for the WPA Project in 1939, is another nostalgic version of history. The boy with the banjo and the watermelon singing "Suwanee" is a stereotype that makes us blush now. If we were to stitch a cultural map of Florida now, it would have to include Disney World, retirement villages, a hanging chad, and Spanish language television.
SUNDAY SCHOOL PICNIC
Sunday School Picnic Quilt (below), made in 1932 by Jennie C. Trein, uses scraps of many different fabrics. I imagine making this was a little like playing with paper dolls. Everyone in their Sunday finery on their way to a festive afternoon. I worried about the lack of provisions but maybe it's early. Did you notice the gravestones near the church? They are marked. Also, note the border contains not a single boy or man.
The quilt maker's name is lost, as are many of the iconic all-American eateries where hash slingers and wizened waitresses ruled the roost. The curved border is in keeping with midcentury modern architecture and is not easy to accomplish in quilting.
This one, titled Quilt Show, (below) was stitched in 1943 by Bertha Stenge. I love how meta it is - each quilt square containing more quilt squares.
This quilt, stitched in 1930 by Lulu Bennett, reminds me of Jane Austen. This might be the house that Lizzy Bennett Darcy could afford to purchase for her mother after Mr. Bennett passes away and horrid Reverend Collins inherits Longbourn. The inscription reads, "The home that tenderly greets -- the mother-in-law."
QUILT WITH BUILDINGS, ANIMALS, AND SHIELDS
This quilt, appliquéd and embroidered around 1890, has a perfectly symmetrical design. If you fold it lengthwise, each side is a mirror image of the other. Each castle, each church, each flower is matched with another with one exception. Do you see the boo-boo? The second square on the outside row does not match its corresponding square. I have no doubt the original went missing.
If squares #2 and #9 switched places, the subject matter of each quilt square would match the subject matter of its mirror image. What's your theory?
Appliquéd and embroidered with ink drawing and inscriptions, this quilt dates to about 1920. It looks like a wooden puzzle I played with at my grandparents' house.
JOHN L. SULLIVAN QUILT
Here is what the Art Institute of Chicago says about this wonderful crazy quilt:
Lionizing the infamous Irish-American boxer John Sullivan, this quilt presents a striking collage of representational images, patterns, and text. The embroidered portrait of Sullivan in the center depicts him as a formidable individual with crossed arms and a steely gaze. Around him, the quilt features an irregular assemblage of fabric scraps embroidered with imagery and text drawn from popular print media of the time. Although the central placement of the portrait, which is accented with shamrocks and an American flag, as well as the scattering of lucky horse shoes, appear celebratory, the ominous phrase BLOODY BUTCHERY appears at left, perhaps a description of one of his matches. Below the central portrait, the red- and black-striped fabric features a depiction of the 1889 bare-knuckle match in which Sullivan triumphed over Jake Kilrain after seventy-five rounds.
This quilt, created by Barbara Palzewicz in 2001, is the most contemporary in the exhibition, and makes me wish to meet this Dorothy myself. I think I'd like her. She's got gumption, you can just tell, the way she's perched on her own gravestone offering up a quilt to her maker. Note the quote stitched into the grass at Dorothy's slipper-clad feet.
"If I could take the tears cried into your hankies over Barney, Butch, and Les, and turn them into flowers, in the garden you could rest. If tears could build a stairway, and memories a lane, I'd walk right up to heaven, and bring you home again."
Phew! You made it to the end! I think you deserve a bite of a cookie for being such a good reader. See you next Friday!