As a small state, mostly rural and quite isolated, Kentucky's quiltmaking has been preserved and passed on through community traditions. It would seem that the likelihood of any great degree of outside recognition or experimentation would be slim. Yet Kentucky is known for its quilts throughout the world. Indeed, the first quilt documentation project in the world was The Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc. The diversity of the examples within this 1998 exhibit speaks to the accomplishments of all Kentuckians who are part of the state's quilting tradition. Their many different artistic voices might hide how they embraced those traditions. At first glance, the old and new bear little resemblance to one another. A closer look reveals their shared roots.
Kentucky Quilts: Roots and Wings
An original exhibition and catalogue from Kentucky Folk Art Center, Morehead, Kentucky, 1998
Online source: http://www.shellyquilts.com/resources/articles/Roots_and_Wings.php
In 1907, Eliza Calvert Hall published a best-selling collection of short stories titled Aunt Jane of Kentucky. The central character of these stories, Jane Parrish, became one of the nation's most unlikely national folk heroines: an elderly, female, 19th century quilter. What an extraordinary person for Americans to pay homage to-this old quilter whose meditations on life center around women's domestic life. Certainly, Aunt Jane was neither a suffragette nor a Seven Sister graduate from the Northeast. She was a folksy, calico-dressed, bespectacled Kentucky woman percolating with stories about quilts:
I've always had the name of being a good housekeeper, but when I'm dead and gone there ain't anybody going to think of the floors I've swept and the tables I've scrubbed, and the old clothes I've patched, and the stockings I've darned. But when one of my grandchildren or great-grandchildren sees one of these quilts, they'll think 'bout Aunt Jane and I'll know I ain't forgotten.1
Her clever storytelling, often inspired by and woven around one of her quilts, abounds with universal themes such as death, love, and family, and provides insight into how women claimed immortality when they were disallowed from rights such as drawing up their own will. The women reading this novel identified with the Aunt Jane of Kentucky in themselves, the creative souls bound to undervalued domestic roles within their own families, silently stitching themselves into their quilts. The overwhelming success of Aunt Jane of Kentucky suggests that the seeds of seeing quilts as more than utilitarian objects, perhaps even as art, were planted very early in America. But when did the magical schism occur, when quilts became valued as art, and why did it occur?
Quilts are still being made pretty much as they were in the past, by piecing and appliquéing fabric shapes to form realistic pictures or dazzling geometric designs. The maker's innermost thoughts are still expressed through symbols and colors as well as words and pictures.2 "In the last quarter of a century, however, folk art (the genre under which quilts fall) of every era and ethnicity has thrived in the marketplace; 'domestic arts' have graduated into a hip, even subversive course of study on college campuses; and the quilt has been reborn as a vibrant, provocative collectible that attracts buyers of traditional and contemporary art alike." 3"Today it is common for scholars, historians, antique dealers, collectors and connoisseurs of needlework, and even quiltmakers themselves to voice opinions on the aesthetic merit of historic and contemporary quilts." 4
This exhibit, Kentucky Quilts: Roots and Wings suggests visual and thematic relationships between contemporary works and their historical predecessors, brings the extraordinary vision and aesthetic achievements of Kentucky quiltmaking to the attention of the public, and respects and celebrates the medium of quilting as a form of artistic expression. We are fortunate that quilts and quiltmaking flourish in Kentucky. As a small state, mostly rural and quite isolated, Kentucky's quiltmaking has been preserved and passed on through community traditions. It would seem that the likelihood of any great degree of outside recognition or experimentation would be slim. Yet Kentucky is known for its quilts throughout the world. The amount of world-recognized quilt making activity here far exceeds the small population of the state. Kentucky quilts are a phenomena: major commercial quilting enterprises are based here, such as Eleanor Beard's Studio in Hardinsburg; membership at the Paducah-based American Quilter's Society exceeds 80,000 individuals; and, contemporary fiber artists contribute daily to university and civic activities. Indeed, the first quilt documentation project in the world was The Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc. The diversity of the examples within this exhibit speaks to the accomplishments of all Kentuckians who are part of the state's quilting tradition. Their many different artistic voices might hide how they embraced those traditions. At first glance, the old and new bear little resemblance to one another. A closer look reveals their shared roots. 5
While many quilts were coveted by their makers, it is unlikely that any woman of nineteenth century America, such as Aunt Jane, would have described a quilt she created as a work of art or as a masterpiece. Social conventions of modesty forbid public praise for material objects and inhibited expressions of pride. Sadly reflected in the paucity of written information, such as diaries, where women might have voiced some feeling about their quilts, comments by quiltmakers rarely include praise for their accomplishments, but focus more on descriptions of their work.6 This is particularly true in Kentucky, where illiteracy rates were high, and formal, higher education opportunities were scarce.
Nonetheless, social reform throughout the last half of the nineteenth century provided women with ample opportunities to quilt together and collectively recognize and admire each other's work. While their artistry played second fiddle to their altruism, quilts associated with the full range of womens' social reform activities (abolition, Civil War relief, fund raising, missionary work and temperance) further increased public visibility of quilts, though not as objects of art, but as community focal points for salient political and social issues beginning in the 1830s. The Friendship Autograph Quilt is an example of church fundraising activity, while the Civil War Album Quilt Top memorializes men killed in the battle of Bowling Green. Quilts of this type are some of the earliest examples in America of public art. Whether the makers or original viewers of these quilts saw themselves in this light is doubtful, but the groundwork was laid during this period for today's commemorative and socially-fueled quilts, such as the AIDS quilt, and, in the case of this exhibit, Louisville Area Fiber and Textile Artists (LAFTA) The Sunshine Album Quilt.
LAFTA members have used their fiber art skills to create an album quilt, a section of which is in the exhibit. It was made for the Home of the Innocents in Louisville and represents interpretations of sunshine for the children at the Home, most of whom are abused, neglected, or orphaned. This piece is a return to quilt roots by contemporary women fiber artists following the traditions of generations by using their needlework to advocate for social causes. LAFTA is self-described as fiber and textile artists, not quilters, but the purpose of The LAFTA Sunshine Album Quilt, like the Friendship Autograph Quilt and the Civil War Album Top, defies our expectation of a quilt's function to be simply decorative or insulating.
Dramatic and far-reaching changes in technology also influenced quiltmaking in the second half of the nineteenth century. The expanding textile industry offered more choices to the consumer. Commercial aniline dyes, introduced in the 1850s, drastically improved the range of fabric color . Sewing machines also introduced in the 1850s, contributed to a decline in hand stitching, once the standard of quilt craftsmanship. All but the poorest of women could now quickly make similarly complex and attractive quilts of store bought fabrics. The Industrial Revolution bolstered pride in numerous industries in America, and quilting was certainly one of them. The availability of the sewing machine and an expanded range of fabric choices helped to launch an era of creativity and invention in the last quarter of the nineteenth century so remarkable that many quilt historians see the period as the Golden Age of American quilt making. As America became a world power, so too American quiltmaking became a world folk art and one of this country's greatest artistic achievements. "But, quiltmaking's domestic roots would keep its importance largely hidden and unrecognized for another century." 7
The Industrial Revolution not only improved the quality and variety of fabric, but also the weaponry that was used in the Civil War. "The Civil War had a devastating effect upon the South and many areas were heavily plundered or damaged. Some people lost everything they owned and had little resources to begin again. Families were broken, manpower lost. The economy was in a shambles. It was a harsh and bitter time and it took years of recovery to compensate for the losses encountered."8 For the women of Kentucky, the Civil War only added to an already difficult life, a life where women did not have the opportunity to reach their potential. They could not vote, make a will, and lost their property when they married. They had little opportunity to get an education. Slaves were the only people with fewer rights than women. The great majority of Kentucky's women lived and died in obscurity." 9
During and after the Civil War, fabric was particularly scarce and difficult to acquire and means were exceedingly limited. Habits acquired during those periods of scarcity and economic depression are long-standing. Even today some quiltmakers, who can afford to buy new material, prefer to mix and jumble their fabrics in a way that harkens back 150 years. Improvisation has always had a useful place in the making of quilts-to expand a border, finish a pattern, or make creative use of remnants of worn out leg backs and dresses. It is unknown whether particularly outstanding ones, like The Kentucky Sun Quilt were created out of "inspiration, necessity or momentary whim." 10We now see these improvisatory quilts from a different perspective. They remind us of Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and Mondrian. As our value system has changed for evaluating "art", appreciation for these types of quilts has blossomed.
The Centennial Exposition in 1876 attracted nearly ten million visitors. Hundreds of quilts were exhibited. Women were certainly given the opportunity to realize that quilts were a connecting thread among them. Never before had so many women gathered together to admire one another's work on such a grand scale. It was also at this exposition that Japanese culture was first introduced to the mass American public. They quickly became fascinated with its art and culture. Crazy quilts reflect this fascination. Quilters found Japanese design fresh, exotic and exciting. The rational geometry of the West was replaced with the perceived mystery and irregularity of the Orient. 11They became the first quilts made solely for decoration, in effect the first "art quilt". Embellishment was an important part of making crazy quilts. On them have appeared images of everything from John L. Sullivan, the boxer, to the most all-encompassing embroidery work, completely stirring activity through the entire quilt. Many contemporary quilt artists, including Jane Burch Cochran, have been inspired by crazy quilts. She says, " I am especially influenced by Victorian Crazy quilts…I do not come from a tradition of quilters." In Whitney Otto's book, How to Make an American Quilt, she says, "This [crazy quilt] is the pattern with the least amount of discipline and the greatest measure of emotion. I think that is what speaks to me." The late nineteenth century Spider Web quilt also comes out of the crazy quilt tradition and is a highly sophisticated work of art.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, interest in traditional handcrafts and quiltmaking had waned. Quilts were considered old-fashioned and were associated with an earlier, more rural America. Most of the women who could do so bought their bed coverings in stores. Suffragettes saw needles as the symbols of the old order and oppression of women. Innovation came to a standstill as most quiltmakers looked to the past for inspiration. Patterns in new magazines like Women's Home Companion were simpler and more formulaic. In contrast, rural and poor women throughout the country were forced to make quilts, improvising with their available fabric and thread. Particularly within culturally isolated groups, such as rural Kentuckians and African-Americans, quilting remained a highly valued activity. These quilts are some of the freshest and most creative examples in terms of color and design.
Nowhere in the quiltmaking communities were traditions more carefully preserved than in the African-American community. While many African-American men a generation or two removed from slavery found city employment in mills and foundries, African-American women's work was almost entirely limited to domestic service or laundry. Coming from rural environments with limited social contact, church, community and social organizations were the avenue for learning about changing styles, fashions, and raising standards of living. African-American quilts naturally reflect the wide variety of experiences in the lives of their creators. Quilts made by African-American women tell the rich and complex story of the Black experience in America over the past two hundred years. Blacks did not bring quiltmaking with them from Africa. Rather, African-American quiltmaking has European-American origins that place it firmly within the mainstream of quilting history. A look at African-American quilts is a look at the imprint of the lives of Black Americans on the traditional American quilt." 12
The quilts of Ophelia Searcy and her family address the multi-generational quiltmaking activity of one Kentucky African-American family. To make extra money, her mother was paid one dollar per hundred yard size spool to quilt for others, all the while continuing to quilt for her family. Ophelia made her first large quilt at age 14. Her Friendship Quilt was quilted in 1991. Her Aunt Elveree gave the top to her as a gift in 1973. Her daughter's eight year-old handprints are quilted in one block. She and other family members have made many quilts for each other. Each of the three doll quilts has its story. Ophelia's mother Julia Logan Anderson Shearer made the Four Patch on Yellow for Ophelia in 1939-40. Ophelia's mother also made the Postage Stamp for her grand daughter, Zanetta, in 1972, and the Bicentennial Bowtie Quilt with Prairie Points was made by Ophelia in 1992, the year of Kentucky's Bicentennial. The husband of one of the members of the Friendship Quilters' Group, who have quilted together for twenty years, made the doll quilt stand. Ophelia is very active in several of the state's quilting organizations. Juanita Yeager is an award winning contemporary quiltmaker who made her first quilt in 1983 and thinks of her work as a passion and an art form. One of Juanita's quilts is in the collection of the Museum of the American Quilter's Society in Paducah. Gwen Kelly's hand embroidered piece, Shine, is a tribute to all women who made quilts because it was expected and necessary. "What would they rather have been doing," she asks. "Was quiltmaking comforting or imprisoning?"
In the early twentieth century and especially in the downward turn toward the Depression, the contemporary Kentucky quiltmaker's sewing prowess became legendary. Quiltmaking was revived for very practical reasons-it was a way to make money. Cottage industries located inside and outside of Kentucky proudly advertised that their quilts were handmade by the women of Kentucky. The sewing prowess of the Kentucky quiltmakers was highly advertised and commercialized almost to the point of constituting a Kentucky quiltmakers' mystique, as indicated in a 1934 article:
Here in America the lifting of this rather pastoral art up to the place of really amazing expression of fine craftsmanship has been accomplished by the American Needlecraft Guild, which has its home in the mountains of Kentucky…In fact, with original designs, executed with such perfection of detail, there seems no limit to the accomplishments of these craftworkers of the Kentucky mountains.13
The Nancy Lincoln Guild, 514 Madison Avenue, New York, advertised itself as "A Product of Kentucky". On the cover of its catalog, a specially designed logo reads, "Exquisite Hand Sewn Things from Kentucky." It does seem the organization's very name-Nancy Lincoln Guild-had Kentucky connotations: that the company was named for Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's mother. 14
In the January 1932 issue of Good Housekeeping, an article stated, "[t]here is a woman in Kentucky with sixty mountain women working under her direction who will do your quilting. This work is exquisite…"
Merikay Waldvogel and Barbara Brackman, authors of the publication Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 World's Fair, "acknowledged that the Kentucky quiltmakers' mystique" as discussed by Cuesta Benberry in her article on cottage industries, "was based on a great deal of truth." When the authors came to Kentucky to research for their book, they realized that "something was happening in Kentucky during the 1930s, something that had not yet been documented." 15
One of the most successful of the Kentucky Quilt cottage industries was the Eleanor Beard Hedgelands Studio of Hardinsburg. By 1929, Eleanor Beard had offices and outlets in New York City (across the street from the Nancy Lincoln Guild), Pasadena, Santa Barbara, and Chicago. At the height of its business, the studio employed around 1,000 people. Some quilters worked in her studio and many more worked at home. A personal account credits Eleanor Beard for providing employment opportunities that helped her buy shoes for her children. The Eleanor Beard Studio meant the survival of Hardinsburg and the surrounding towns during the Depression. About a year after she sold her first comforter, a beautiful silk one, hand-quilted in a delicate and exquisite original design, business boomed. She then began making pillows, spreads, robes, and novelties such as the ones in the exhibit: water bottle covers, lingerie bags, bed jackets, and even toilet seat covers. Louisville Bedding also had an active quilt advertising and sales program, all touting Kentucky quilts as the "best" and inviting you to a showing of "Olde Kentucky Quilts that lay an irresistible spell upon rooms they adorn." A May 1934 Arts and Decoration Magazine said of trapunto quilt work,"there seems to be no limit to the accomplishment of these craftworkers of the Kentucky mountains." Additional Kentucky-based quilt cottage industries were conducted by Withers at Kirk, the Caden sisters at Lexington, and Mrs. Dale Combs at Pebworth. 16
Homemakers' organizations, agricultural extension agencies, and quilting cooperatives all contributed to the Kentucky quilting frenzy. While most Americans quilted to save money during the Great Depression, some Kentuckians prospered as commercialism and mass marketing broadened public interest in the state's quilts. As their pockets filled with money, other Kentucky quilters, those not even involved with cottage industries, held themselves to a higher standard of craftsmanship and artistry. This was best shown during the Chicago World's Fair, the sight of the largest quilt show ever held. In the midst of the Great Depression, more than 25,000 women submitted quilts to local and regional contests around the country. Of the 30 finalists, six were Kentuckians, as well as the grand prizewinner, Margaret Caden, one of the Caden sisters.
Even before the fair, the Cadens' shop had a national reputation as an elite establishment catering to Lexington's horse racing set offering wedding and commencement gifts including linen handkerchiefs, smocked dresses, pillow shams, custom draperies and handmade quilts. At one point the shop maintained a branch in Miami Beach during the winter months and one in Saratoga Springs, New York during the racing season. After the fair, publicity, such as that which appeared in the Lexington newspaper, hailed Margaret Caden as "America's Champion Quilter". This praise must have benefited her business. 17
Although Margaret certified on the Sears contest entry form that the quilt was of her own making, that was not the case according to family members of the women who actually did the work. " Margaret's quiltmaking was limited to orchestrating the work of the seamstresses who sewed for hire." 18None of the four women who worked on the quilt shared any of the credit or shared in the prize. Yet they were unable to complain because it was the Depression and they were sorely in need of the money made from working for the Caden sisters. "The scandal of the Caden's assembly-line prizewinner didn't reach Sears corporate offices until recent years although the story has been gossip in Lexington for generations."19
No other state had more than two finalists. According to Cuesta Benberry in her article Quilt Cottage Industries, "[d]uring the early twentieth century, there were a number of quilt cottage industries located at various sites around the country. No quilt cottage industry elsewhere, however, seems to have acquired the panache of the ones that could state their quilts were made by the women of Kentucky."20
The Colonial Revival that began in the 1920s championed and popularized the early American look in home decorating. This was a period of intense interest in commercial quilt patterns and kits for quilt making. The first broad public stirrings in scholarly and collector interest in American antiques and folk art began. The Magazine Antiques published its first issue in 1922 and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened its American Wing in 1924. Quilts lagged behind other American textiles in getting attention from collectors and scholars and no quilts were included in the seminal folk art shows of the 1930s. Robert Shaw, in his book, Quilts: A Living Tradition, says that this occurred, "perhaps because they were still such a vibrant and evolving part of American life, still very much a living art." 21
Beginning in the 1930s, a few pioneering collectors began to collect outstanding quilts. By far the most important early quilt collector was Electra Havemeyer Webb who later founded the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. "Despite efforts by people like Mrs. Webb, quiltmaking again fell from favor after the Second World War and remained a largely underground phenomenon until the 1960s. Thousands of women continued to make quilts through the 1950s, of course, but the great economic prosperity made handmade quilts undesirable, unnecessary, and unfashionable." 22 They were relegated to people of lesser means who could not afford to buy bedcovers. 23A quilt in this exhibit, Derby, which dates from the 1940s, was made out of economic necessity. It is constructed from leftover scraps of fabric from Union Underwear in Bowling Green. At least fifteen of those fabrics were identified as from Union Underwear.
The seeds of the Art Quilt movement began in the nineteenth century with William Morris and the development of the Arts and Crafts movement. Americans were inspired to investigate their own forgotten handcraft traditions just in time to save many from extinction. Weaving was the only textile discipline taught in most art schools because it had commercial applications. Fiber arts were elevated, largely because of the influences of the German Bauhaus School founded in 1919. As World War II loomed, many of the Bauhaus disciples found refuge in the United States. Fortunately for the South, a number of artists came to North Carolina and founded Black Mountain College, which was operational from 1933 to 1956. Annie Albers, a gifted weaver, came to Black Mountain. Her work was considered an art form. Woven hangings went on the walls long before quilts, and paper collage had been explored 40 years earlier by Braque, Picasso, and others.24 The quilt, which can be viewed as fabric collage, now had the potential for artistic recognition. Certain artists began to adopt and incorporate quilting techniques in their work. This coincided with a new awareness of the value of fiber as an art medium.25
In 1965 at the height of the op art craze, the Newark Museum mounted an exhibition called Optical Quilts, and a review called it "op art" from prior centuries. Tulip Basket Variation and Adkins' Animal Quilt could have been in that exhibit. Quilts were now on a vertical plane-looked at as abstract art.
In 1969, an exhibit called Objects USA, a monumental collection of fine contemporary American crafts, was assembled by S.C. Johnson and Sons of Racine, Wisconsin. Anne Ogden, in a 1985 catalog, called it an "exhibition that changed the face of the American craft movement." In that exhibit was a quilt by Kentuckian Alma Lesch called Bathsheba's Bedspread with heavily textured areas of stitchery and applique, considered to be her most spectacular bedcover. Alma Lesch was born in McCracken County, Kentucky, and was educated in Kentucky where she taught for twenty-five years. A tribute to her teaching career highlighted the many lives she had touched when work by thirty-five of her former students was shown at the Louisville Art Gallery in 1985. Concurrently, there was a retrospective of her work curated by Jacque Parsley and shown at the Liberty National Bank Gallery.26 In that catalog, Lida Gordon, Associate Professor in the Department of Fine Art at the University of Louisville wrote, "The work of Alma Lesch is unique in the world of contemporary fiber. Her impact on the development of "fiber art" has been no less than profound. As an innovator both in technique and in approach to subject matter, her work has influenced a new generation of fiber artists… and contributed to the acceptance of traditionally female processes as a viable medium for expression in contemporary art." 27
She is best known for her fabric collage and stitchery pieces incorporating unexpected found objects. She has an uncanny ability to place such found objects, lace, and embroidery with cast-off clothing to become provocative works of art. One of her pieces, Mother and Child Fiber Portrait, not only contains her favorite use of clothing and other embellishments but has within it a large number of clothing labels incorporated into the work. "She continues to surprise and engage us," says Anne Ogden in a 1985 catalog, "with common images uncommonly presented and expertly crafted." Her work reminds us of our past, as such parts of her life as her high school graduation dress in the piece, Seventeen-1934, become the central image in a wall hanging. "But each piece keeps on giving and challenges us to examine our values and assumptions-when she transforms a work shirt, for example, into a work of art."28
Several of the well known fiber artists/quiltmakers included in this exhibit attribute seeing Alma's piece in Objects USA with changing their work forever, taking them from painting into fiber. Three of the artists in the exhibition, Jane Burch Cochran, Jacque Parsley and Arturo Sandoval, look to Alma as their inspiration. Arturo Sandoval, a professor at the University of Kentucky Department of Art, is a nationally recognized fiber artist using twentieth century industrial and high tech materials as computer tape, battery cable, microfilm, Mylar and Lurex in his work. Milennium Portal: Baptism of Fire No.1, 1994 is his contribution to this exhibit. Sandoval writes, "In 1969, I was fortunate to view the seminal, craft exhibition Objects USA in Boston, and later, while an MFA student at the Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, I was influenced forever by the fiber art represented in that collection and especially enjoyed the freedom and material usage expressed in the hand sewn fiber assemblage of Kentucky artist Alma Lesch." Jane Burch Cochran also writes, "I would have to say that I am inspired by Alma Lesch. I did not consciously realize this for a time but then remembered I saw her quilt in Objects USA. I was a painter then…" Jacque Parsley says, "I am greatly influenced by her humorous straight forward approach to artmaking."
Charles and Rubynelle Counts began their involvement with quiltmaking in the 1960s. They were artists who had studied various crafts at Berea College in Kentucky during the 1950s, including weaving and pottery. Berea had been an important center for crafts since the 1890s when its President, Dr. William Goodell Frost, became the first to champion the traditional crafts of rural Appalachia. Berea established classes in the traditional arts in 1902 and also marketed the work of students and local crafts people.
Charles Counts was raised in the ravaged coal fields of Harlan County and like Dr. Frost, he was deeply concerned about the devastated economy of rural Appalachia. In 1965, he received federal funding for a training program for three local people in pottery. Of that venture, Counts said, "Should we not take up this admittedly thin thread of hope, then, that the possibility exists these people would have been cast out in the human junkyard -unemployment, uneducation-more poverty and more ignorance." After being introduced to local quiltmakers, the Counts decided to add quiltmaking to their repertoire. Charles began to design original tops that were executed and quilted by local artisans. The resulting quilts are a unique composite of Counts' innovative, modern craft designs.29
Collaborations of all sorts resulted in some amazing quilts: husband and wife, Charles and Rubynel Counts, mother and daughter, Margaret Rudd and Rudee Rodriquez, sisters Irene Huff and Violet Martin, to name but a few. The sisters Huff and Martin "cooperate in producing quilts…. Irene lays out the pieces and Violet does the quilting. The sisters have been selling their quilts for ten years through a shop in Berea…. They see the money as a financial token for their time spent in challenging work. For them, quilting retains the element of adventure, of dealing with creative problems, and of ending up with a finished quilt that embodies the best of Kentucky, country quilting traditions." 30
In the 1960s, the counterculture rejected the status quo and in an effort to search for basic American values and ways to live, looked back to earlier times. The women's movement began calling attention to inequities in opportunities offered to women artists. Their demands helped change art itself. With the nation's bicentennial on the horizon, the greatest and most sustained revival of all was gathering force. Quilts were about to become one of the key threads that would tie together American women's search for the past and hopes for the future. Traditional American crafts and folk arts were studied closely, many of them for the first time. Attitudes toward cloth and fiber changed profoundly. The 1960s ushered in a new way of dressing and also shook the Eurocentric worldview. The contemporary textile surface design movement, concerned with fabric printing, painting and dying grew in part from the expansion of textile sources and technologies that began in the 1960s. 31
"Art quilters represent the first generation to proclaim themselves artists." 32 The world of today's quiltmaker is infinitely wider than that of her nineteenth century predecessors, and contemporary quilt artists take full advantage of its richness. Studio quilt makers draw on a variety of sources in their search for personal expression. The worlds of textile art, surface design and the art quilt intersect and overlap. A number of quilt artists like the late Lenore Davis worked in other mixed textile media in addition to producing works that meet at least some of the evolving definitions of what a quilt is.33 Her quilt, The Little City, is an example of her work. And while they certainly know and appreciate the quilt's rich history, many of their sources have little or nothing to do with the traditions of American quilt making. The quilt is their starting point, the basic structure on which they build. Whether they began as quilters or came to the quilt from painting or other disciplines, all art quilters can still turn to the traditional quilt for sustenance and validation of their work. The roots of the art quilt are first and foremost to be found in the traditional functional quilted bedcover. Traditional quilts remain the bedrock for the art quilt, representing the touchstone where many art quilters began. Quilts that qualify as masterpieces of visual art can be found throughout the history of quilt making and in every stylistic category and regional tradition. Any careful consideration of the universe of historic quilts will reveal extraordinary examples of a variety of categories. All are part of the rich history of American quilt making, and all have by example helped to pave the way for the art quilt. They form a historic continuum of artistic excellence that challenges today's quilt artists to rise to the level of their predecessors ingenuity and expressive capability.
In August of 1969, Josephine and Bill Richardson arrived from the northeast United States to Kentucky on an independent grant from The Community Film Institute. In Whitesburg, they founded Appalshop, the well-known film making company. Ten such companies were founded around the country, but Appalshop is the only one still in existence. Josephine opened The Cozy Corner, a quilts, books, and regional crafts shop in November 1973. It gave people from the area the first significant opportunity to sell what they were making on a larger scale both at the shop and to the rest of the country. Other organizations such as Grassroots Crafts in Jackson, Kentucky and cooperatives such as Redbud, Quicksand and others developed in the mountains but have not survived. In 1971 and 1972, Miriam Tuska of Lexington curated an exhibit, Quilts as Art, that traveled around the state under the auspices of the Kentucky Arts Commission. But, for the rest of the country and around the world it was the exhibition, Abstract Design in American Quilts, which opened in July 1971 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, curated by Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof, that was pivotal. Quilts chosen only for their aesthetics were shown on the walls of a major art museum in New York City for the first time. With its entire attendant publicity and travel world wide, it served as an inspiration to many quilt artists and it gave respect to the quilt as an art object.
The effect was monumental and it met with critical acclaim from the New York Times to the Louisville-based WHAS television and radio stations, where Bob Schulman, in his weekly spot, One Man's Opinion, said in his piece called "Undercover Art ":
The Whitney Museum of American Art might be one of the last places garden variety people from Kentucky would choose to visit if given the chance to tour New York City. Time to change that notion. On display at the Whitney, from now until after Labor Day, is a collection of what Kentucky or Indiana State Fair people might call 'antique' patchwork quilts. But those quilts at the New York museum have been chosen for their startling beauty of 'abstract design. Like some of the quilts handed down to Kentuckiana people by their great-grandparents, the exhibited works are in every way examples of how some homemakers a century ago almost 'painted' with fabrics, often creating what today would be called 'sophisticated' color patterns and geometric designs.34
It was during this time period that quilt collecting, exhibitions, and dealers developed in earnest. Dozens of great collections, public and private, were also formed in or grew substantially: The Kentucky Historical Society, The Kentucky Museum at Western Kentucky University, Rowland and Eleanor Bingham Miller's collection, and others who have lent generously to this exhibition. Quilt collecting became fashionable and the Art Quilt Movement gathered steam. In 1974, The Magazine Antiques featured Kentucky decorative arts and Miriam Tuska wrote a major article about Kentucky quilts, bringing our historic quilts to the attention of the collecting and museum communities.
In the 1980s, attention came to Kentucky and its quilts from several landmark events. In 1981, The Kentucky Quilt Project was founded as the first of the state documentation efforts. Quilt Days were held across the state and the 44 best of these quilts were chosen for an exhibit that traveled for two years with the Smithsonian Exhibition Travelling Exhibition Service. This began a movement to document state and regional quilts that has not yet abated. Nationwide, approximately 200,000 quilts have been documented to date at more than 2,000 quilt days. More than 30 books on the subject have been published. Quilts were out of the closets and out from under the beds creating a shared sense of pride in the achievements of quiltmakers everywhere. Instrumental in the development of quilt scholarship was the major support of quilts' first significant patrons, Rowland and Eleanor Bingham Miller and Mary and Barry Bingham. The Kentucky Heritage Quilt Society, founded in 1980, continues to document the quilts of Kentucky. In addition, in March of 1981, Phyllis George Brown and Mary Norton Shands founded The Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation, an organization that took Kentucky artists and their crafts and promoted them widely around the country. Their retail gallery and exhibition space opened in Louisville in 1984. Kentucky has a thriving craft promotion business sponsored by the state's Kentucky Crafts Marketing Program headed by Fran Redmon. The American Quilter's Society was founded by Meredith and Bill Schroeder at Paducah in 1984. They hold an annual quilt show offering more than $75,000 in prizes and have a membership organization of more than 80,000 people worldwide. Their Museum of the American Quilter's Society honors today's quilters, has a large permanent collection, and offers a full year's schedule of exhibitions and classes. The intersection of quilt-related attention, both inside and outside of Kentucky, excited creativity in quiltmakers and fiber artists and provided proof of the value and significance of work they had been doing all along.
In 1991, Louisville was host to The Kentucky Quilt Project's Louisville Celebrates the American Quilt, planned to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the landmark Whitney exhibition by reinstalling it for the first time since 1971 at the Louisville Museum of History and Science. Five other exhibitions, four conferences, and other related events illustrated and furthered the extraordinary developments in the field over the past twenty years. The conferences furthered quilt scholarship in specific areas and brought scholars to Louisville who, through their interaction, created new dialogues about quilts and helped clarify scholarly aims and standards in the field. The cooperation among Louisville's visual arts organizations including the Louisville Visual Art Association, the Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery, the J.B.Speed Art Museum, the Louisville Museum of History and Science, Zephyr Gallery, others of the city's cultural groups, and its political institutions and officials gave Kentuckians and visitors their broadest opportunity ever in Kentucky to see, learn, and be inspired by quilts.
In 1997, at the beginning of my research for this exhibit, I talked with a group of artists who are using quilts as inspiration and moving in other creative directions. Tom Pfannerstill uses found materials such as cans and cigarette packs to assemble into log cabin 'quilts'. Denise Furnish uses bits of old quilts found at yard sales and flea markets in her paintings, and Rebekka Seigel pays tribute in her quilt to the musician Jean Ritchie from Viper, Kentucky. Bette Levy's hand embroidery in her piece Hit or Amish was inspired by the Amish quilt show at the Speed Museum in Louisville in 1992. Melinda Snyder goes back and forth between embroidery, as seen in her Window Series April, and piecing, as seen in her Bad Hair Day. She says that, "As an artist, I am still influenced by the texture, color, and pattern of old quilts. Although I work in embroidery, my stitching often has a 'pieced' quality. Both mediums are influenced by the other in my work."
"Not all quilts are works of art, of course, nor do all quilts strive to be. Many quiltmakers through the years have been content to produce copies of existing designs without adding their own ideas, while others have aimed simply to create warm and appealing bedcovers for their families. And some have attempted to create works of beauty and fallen short of their ambitions. Just as most paintings are not great original works of art, so too the majority of quilts do not rise above the functional, the competent, the imitative, or the merely decorative." 35
"Quiltmaking is a quintessentially democratic activity, accessible to anyone with basic sewing skills, an urge for self expression, and an eye for beauty. No other American artform so inextricably intertwines usefulness and beauty. Americans need bedcoverings for warmth and continue to find dynamic new ways to make their bedcoverings attractive to the eye. Quilts can be functional and decorative, intimate and abstract, well crafted and artful. Quilts satisfy the basic human need for warmth. They also fulfill the desires for self-expression and for creating things of beauty. In a traditional quilt, these pairings of seeming opposites are inseparable, each informs and enhances the other. The function of the quilt allows its art to flourish, the art of the quilt allows its function to retain meaning. Even though quilts are now sometimes made as works of art, without thought given to purpose, and as often hang on walls as cover beds, their simple, traditional function still ties them to us, grounds them, and deflates their makers pretensions-in a sense, keeps them honest." 36
And so we return to the heroine of our story, Aunt Jane of Kentucky, who says it best:
Patchwork? Ah, no! It was memory, imagination, history, biography, joy, sorrow, philosophy, religion, romance, realism, life, love, and death; and over all, like a halo, the love of the artist for his work, and the soul's longing for earthly immortality." 37
1Hall, Eliza Calvert. Aunt Jane of Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995 reprint of 1898 and 1908 edition, p. 78.
2McMorris, Penny. Quotes from Press Release of Homage To The Quilt: Selections from Quilt National '87 and The Museum of American Folk Art. New York: The American Craft Museum, 1987.
3Bank, Mirra. Anonymous Was A Woman. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1979 reprint 1995, p. 9.
4Oliver, Celia. "Value in the Eye of the Maker: Masterpiece Quilts in Nineteenth Century America" foreword of American Quilt Collection: Antique Quilt Masterpieces. Tokyo: Nihon Vogue, 1997, p. 6.
5McMorris, Penny. Homage To The Quilt: Selections from Quilt National '87 and The Museum of American Folk Art, 1987. New York: The American Craft Museum [Quotes from Press Release].
6Oliver, Celia. "Value in the Eye of the Maker: Masterpiece Quilts in Nineteenth Century America" foreword of American Quilt Collections: Antique Quilt Masterpieces. Tokyo: Nihon Vogue, 1997.
7ociates, Inc., 1995, p. 51.
8Ramsey, Bets and Gail Andrews Trechsel. Southern Quilts: A New View. McLean, Virginia: EPM Publications, 1991, p. 18-19.
9Harrison, Lowell Hayes and James C. Klotter. A New History of Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997, p.146
10Silber, Julie. "Rough and Ready". Country Home. September/October 1998, p. 70.
11Shaw, Robert. Quilts: A Living Tradition. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1995.
12Ibid., p. 187.
13Benberry, Cuesta. "Quilt Cottage Industries". Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths, ed. Laurel Horton. Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994, pp. 147-148.
14Ibid., p. 148.
15Waldvogel, Merikay and Barbara Brackman. Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 World's Fair. Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1993, p. 56.
16Benberry, Cuesta. "Quilt Cottage Industries". Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths, ed. Laurel Horton. Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994, pp. 148-149.
17Waldvogel, Merikay and Barbara Brackman. Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 World's Fair. Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1993, p. 49.
18Ibid., p. 54.
19Ibid., p. 61.
20Benberry, Cuesta. "Quilt Cottage Industries". Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths, ed. Laurel Horton. Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994, p. 149.
21Shaw, Robert. Quilts: A Living Tradition. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1995, pp. 60-61
22Ibid., pp. 62-63.
24Ramsey, Bets. "Art and Quilts". Uncoverings, Vol.14, ed. Laurel Horton. San Francisco,California: American Quilt Study Group, 1993.
27Ibid., p. 22.
28Ibid., p. 20.
29Shaw, Robert. The Art Quilt. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1997, pp. 49-50.
30MacNeal, Patricia Miner and Maude Southwell Wahlman. Quilts From Appalachia. Pennsylvania: Penn State, 1988, p.24
31Shaw, Robert. Quilts: A Living Tradition. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1995, p. 63.
32Shaw, Robert. The Art Quilt. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1997, p. 42.
34Holstein, Jonathan. Abstract Design in American Quilts: The Biography of an Exhibition. Louisville, Kentucky: The Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc., 1992, pp. 47-48.
35Shaw, Robert. The Art Quilt. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1997, p.37.
36Shaw, Robert. Quilts: A Living Tradition. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1995, p. 8.
37Hall, Eliza Calvert. Aunt Jane of Kentucky. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995 reprint of 1898 and 1908 edition, p. 82.
Note: Article excerpts are reprinted with generous permission from publisher. All unauthorized use is illegal.