Stories, history, and culture weave themselves into the quilts currently on display at the UMFA’s Handstitched Worlds: The Cartography of Quilts. Organized by Luke Kelly, the museum’s associate curator of collections, and Katie Seastrand, coordinator of school and teacher programs, the exhibition of 18 quilts, comprising early traditional European and American quilt-making and contemporary assemblages. A wide spectrum of colors and patterns meet the eyes of the viewer all working together to reveal the thoughts and beliefs of those who have come before us and stretch the viewer’s conception of what a quilt can be.
Several of the quilts reveal the political or cultural traditions from which they emerged. — many of which discuss political and/or cultural traditions. Created in 1886, “Map Quilt” shows the states of the union and the U.S. territories as they were at that time. The quilt itself is made of silk, cotton, and velvet materials. Each state in the U.S. is a different color and is placed against a background of a triangular shape that is missing its sides. The entire work is framed in a bright red velvet border. The work recalls manifest destiny an American ideology that touted white, European superiority and was used to justify the expansion of North America and the death of Native people who were already living there. The surge into new territories also played a role in initiating the Civil War by aggravating disagreements over slavery.
“In Honor Shall Wave Spread,” created in 1902, is full of patriotic and political designs that have been interspersed between images of birds, plant life, and other animals like zebras or camels. The ornamental needlework is done in bright red thread against a white cotton background. The many images and scenes on the quilt, which were made available in books and magazines, are placed with little regard to making a cohesive scene: an image of Teddy Roosevelt, gun in hand, is surrounded by images of abnormally large cranes and birds. Elsewhere, the quilt also makes references to historical figures like General Custer and General Andrew Jackson, as well as very contemporary events, like the United Mine Workers’ strike of 1902. What message might have been read by the quilts contemporaries is hard to determine, but with so many scenes the quilt is fun to explore as the viewer can recognize both historical figures and a wide range of animals seemingly intermingled on the surface of the quilt.
This type of needlepoint work in quilts became popular after an exhibition at the Royal School of Art Needlework in 1876, but most of us are more familiar with the patchwork quilt, a form that goes back almost three millenia and which is kept alive today. Nora Mckeown Ezell’s energetic and dynamic “Star Quilt,” created in 1977, is a modern take on the traditional eight-pointed Star of Hope pattern. A self-taught quilter, Ezell took pride in her original patterns and style of quilting. Part of her artistry included using scrape materials, just as the women in her childhood did, that she pieced together instead of buying new fabrics.” The star pattern in quilting refers to celestial navigation, whether as the star of Bethlehem, or as the North Star, a reference to coded messages for enslaved people on the Underground Railroad. This pattern, normally uniform in size and color, takes on a different form under Ezell’s hand. Her work pays no heed to keeping a constant size or color, rather her stars grow as large as a quarter of the quilt, then shrink down to just one small square. Ezell even cuts her stars in half and decorates them in red, green, yellow, and blue colors.
The show also features a few works that stretch and explore the definition of quilts. These works utilize materials outside of fibrous ones to create patterns and panels that mirror the quilt-making process and results. One such example is Jean-Marcel St. Jacques’s “Contrary to Hearsay, He Wasn’t the Devil.” The work itself is made up of wood, nails, and antique hardware, but feels reminiscent of patchwork quilting. The wood pieces are colorful and vary in shape and size: some are long and thin, giving a striped pattern to the work, while others are square and blocky. Round doorknobs and hinges are scattered throughout the work, which makes this piece feel like a large door waiting to be opened. St. Jacques collected all the wood and hardware in the work after Hurricane Katrina struck his home in 2004. Salvaging these pieces from the debris St. Jacques manipulated these materials, victims of destruction, into something beautiful and new. The work symbolizes the strength and resilience of New Orleans and has been coined a wooden quilt by the artist.
“Jerry’s Map” is another example of quilting taking on a broader meaning. This work, by Jerry Gretzinger, is part of an ongoing project that envisions fictional terrain while also creating a visual analogy between the act of mapmaking and quilting. Like quilts, Gretzinger’s maps are created by connecting small panels that work together to create a larger design and picture. Like a quilt that is brought together piece by piece Gretzinger’s maps are incomplete until they have been paired and connected with multiple panels.
Drunell Levinson’s “Fort Knocks” also stretches the definition of what a quilt is. Playing on the definition that a quilt is a “sandwich with three layers that could be pierced with a needle and thread,” Levinson took round aluminum-wrapped condoms and connected them all with embroidery thread. In doing so this work not only expands the definition of what makes something a quilt but it also engages with gender stereotypes. Quilting’s long history and perception as a feminine art form is subverted by Levinson’s use of an unorthodox and specifically masculine material. This encourages the viewer to question their gender-specific perception of quilting and fiber arts as a whole.
These quilts map out the stories of their artists and of the worldviews they worked. From patriotism to activism to historical events these works mark the thoughts and personal beliefs of those who have come before us. Quilts open their viewer’s minds to a world of color, pattern, and thought.
Handstitched Worlds: The Cartography of Quilts, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, through May 15.