Not everyone takes an interest in the backstory of art. That said, Margaret Wilson Morris tells a story about her recent series of miniature quilts, how they came about and what they mean to her, that everyone who makes, cares about, or even thinks about art should be aware of. First, though, the quilts.
There are at least 66 framed and individually numbered works, though only about half are at Phillips. Additionally, for those counting, some frames include two separate quilts mounted side-by-side or one above the other. Adding more to the museum character imparted by the use of frames, in most cases Morris has compounded the nature of the quilt by juxtaposing and then sewing together several conventionally complete designs, thus treating them as blocks in a larger (though still quite small) quilt: one where the occasional lack of an overall organizing pattern might have traditionally led to their being typed as “Crazy,” which is also one way to describe the feeling of grief. The overall effect of the exhibition, however, is very much like the way miniature models are often mounted together to lend the final product an encyclopedic character.
As for the design, which in textiles as in other two-dimensional media is fundamentally a way of dividing space, she chose to rely on one of the most popular, basic models, which has several names but is often called “Log Cabin.” Here long rectangles are arranged into larger rectangles, much as an angel floating near the ceiling might look down and see the walls of such a domestic structure. Anything placed at the center of the pattern will then be seen as as asset of the home. Quite a few of Morris’s quilts have such an appliquéd object, an oval or heart shape, cached in or about the cabin. In addition, the use of the highly regular log cabin pattern allows her to show how even in our most orderly, controlled moments, chaos and loss of control are never that far off.
When midway through the project, Morris inherited a collection of colorful silk neckties that were too precious to donate to charity or, for that matter, to stow away out of sight, she found the courage to cut them up and add them to her quilt materials. This is where Skew Right begins to acquire its universal significance. The ties belonged to her husband, who in 2013 was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, leading to a lot of traveling to places where he could be treated by specialists. Artists often find this sort of peripatetic style of living and working a great stimulus to creativity, and Morris was among them, since her quilts were now portable and something she could work on while spending time in unfamiliar and unsympathetic places. But her husband, John, was familiar with the story of Stephen Jay Gould, one of the more fascinating scientists of our time, whose story parallels John’s in an important way.
Gould knew that statistics make for useful research tools, but do not determine how events turn out. His study of the course of a cancer diagnosis like his, which gave him eight months to live, showed him that as higher mortality pushed the top of the bell curve to the left, the few who survived lived longer as the tail of the bell extended further to the right. He called this “skewing right.” His confidence that he could skew right got him through years of horrible treatments and led to another two decades of invaluable work. Sadly, John wasn’t so fortunate, but his conviction that he would skew right must have given him a way to escape despair or hopelessness during the three years remaining to the couple.
These hundreds of quilts, then, are Margaret Wilson Morris’s monument to the indomitable human spirit. They are a token of what we mean when we say “I will love you forever.” And as such, they demonstrate the indispensability of art, for in the work of art, the life of the artist also always skews right.
Margaret Wilson Morris: Skew Right, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Oct. 13.