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Art Review: Domestic objects become objets d'art in African-American quilt exhibit

Saturday, January 25, 2003

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

A different quilt aesthetic has come to the fore, most publicly through renewed interest in those made in the historically African-American hamlet of Gee's Bend, Ala., that have garnered rave reviews in New York City, where 60 are being exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

This "Bright Color Strip Quilt," from the 1970s, is one of more than 40 quilts and textiles in the traveling exhibition "Bold Improvisation: 120 Years of African-American Quilts" at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

"Bold Improvisation: 120 Years of African American Quilts" and "African American Quilters & Preservers of Western Pennsylvania"

WHERE: Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District.

WHEN: Through March 9.

ADMISSION: $6, $4.50 seniors (62+) and students, $3 ages 6-18, free to ages 5 and under and members.

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

PARKING: $3 for 4 hours across Smallman Street, with center validation.

PROGRAMS: Lecture at 8 p.m. Feb. 6, "A Communion of the Spirits: A 25-Year Study of the World of African American Quilters and the Documentary Process," by Roland Freeman, author and Smithsonian research associate ($15, members $8). Children's workshops on Feb. 8, 15 and 22 by quilter Tina Brewer (preregistration required). Lecture at 8 p.m. Feb. 22, "The Relationship between African Traditions and African American Quiltmaking," by Carolyn Mazloomi, quilter, author and curator ($15, members $8).

INFORMATION: 412-454-6000 or http://www.pghhistory.org.

Two fine exhibitions that opened last week at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center offer an opportunity to see what the fuss is all about.

"Bold Improvisation: 120 Years of African American Quilts," a traveling exhibition debuting here, illustrates some of the distinctions between quilts made by African Americans working in traditional settings and more mainstream, European-influenced patterns and styles. It comprises nearly 40 quilts collected around the country over two decades by Pittsburgh native Scott Heffley, who is conservator of paintings at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.

Complementing "Bold Improvisation" is "African American Quilters & Preservers of Western Pennsylvania," 20 fiber works selected by History Center African American Collections curator Samuel Black that are, for the most part, the products of a less homespun dialogue.

Consideration of quilts as art objects heightened in the middle of the past century as a result of feminist demands for the recognition of women's contributions to culture, an evolving visual appreciation of the formal qualities of such styles as abstraction and minimalism, and discussions in the art world that blurred boundaries between art and craft and between "high" and "low" art. Isolated from the bedroom and hung on the vast white walls of museums and galleries, the simplicity of the large, geometric, balanced works appealed to Modernist tastes and held their own against nonrepresentational paintings that were steadily increasing in dimension.

One consequence of this new status was the evolution of the quilt from functional domestic object to a consciously designed work of fiber art, as the Western Pennsylvania exhibition illustrates.

The rise of Post-Modern values, such as revisiting and revising historic accounts, honoring social diversity and a decreased emphasis on exacting craftsmanship, opened the door to other previously overlooked forms of expression.

Recently, a new generation of collectors and curators began to look beyond the impeccably crafted and highly scripted quilts that had become popular and started to identify a cultural pattern in the more improvised piecing on quilts they found at flea markets, pulled from dusty corners of antique shops or hanging on rural clothes lines.

Heffley was one of them, and after two decades he's articulated a list of characteristics, some with connections to traditional African fabric and jazz, that distinguish African-American quilts.

Combining a conservator's connoisseurship with a trained artist's eye, Heffley recognized such quilts as expressive and creative rather than unbalanced and flawed.

While makers couldn't be specifically identified frequently, sellers could often verify that they were African American. Fabric types and patterns helped to date the quilts, as well as provide clues to occupations of the quilters' household members.

For example, it's possible that the 1880s "Nine Patch, Pinwheel, Etc. Quilt" -- which has a traditional component, as suggested by its title, but also a playful quality due to its numerous patterns and construction -- was made by a dressmaker based on the large number of period calicos in it.

By its compositional amalgam, "Nine Patch" also illustrates the quilters' propensity to ignore "rules," an individuality that, ironically, became one of the shared characteristics Heffley identified.


Heffley equates another trait, "pattern improvisation," with jazz syncopation. For example, when succeeding blocks of a row are altered in color, placement or formal component, as in the nine bold red and white squares of the "School House Quilt" made in the 1920s, or the irregular triangles on a charming doll's quilt, the result is an infused rhythm and sense of motion. Intuitive juxtaposing of contrasting areas of design and bright color in many quilts create a similar effect.

A detail from Julianne McAdoo's "Jewel Squares," one of 20 fiber artworks and quilts in "African American Quilters & Preservers of Western Pennsylvania," at the Heinz History Center through March 9.

Several examples of African textiles are included in the exhibition so that visitors may see the connections Heffley's made. The first quilt in the show is a dynamic "Cross Crazy Quilt" from the first decade of the 20th century comprising 20 red, white and navy blocks centered by crosses and diamonds and fleshed out with stripes and checkers. While there's a resonance among the blocks, no two are the same and the eye glides across the surface to take it all in, as it does with the segueing pattering of the adjacent cosmogram on Kuba Cloth from the Kongo.

A technique common in African textiles, strip construction is frequently and effectively employed, whether straightforwardly, as in a piece by a young quilter, or as a basic structure on which to build the intense color flows of the "Bright Color Strip Quilt."

Symbols also help to confirm ethnic identity. Heffley that the red handprints on a quilt dated 1885 and bordered with the phrase "Praise the Lord" are protective symbols for the child he speculates slept under it. More obscure are the mysterious yet captivating graphics of "Applique/Crazy Quilt" from the '30s, which Heffley likens to those on voodoo flags.

While a few pieces are more effective as part of the larger conversation than on their own -- a lap-sewn quilt that folds into its unevenness, a "string quilt" that's reminiscent of a shaggy hooked rug -- there are many that are sterling works of inventiveness, craftsmanship and a beauty that aficionados such as Heffley are teaching the rest of us to see.

Artworks first

The vibrant Western Pennsylvania exhibition displays another face of African American quilting: cosmopolitan, self-aware, these quilts were (with three exceptions) created foremostly as artworks, to convey ideas and style, not (physical) warmth. Their size, carefully selected materials and/or non-fiber embellishments preclude a functional role.

Exceptional contemporary works such as Tina Williams Brewer's "The Waves That Nurture Humanity," Sandra German's "Going Gingko," Julianne McAdoo's "Jewel Squares" and Bonita Porter McFadden's "Segami" would be difficult to ascribe to a particular ethnic background.

So too, use of traditional patterns blur ethnic lines, as in Michaeline Reed's prime "Drunken Bullseye" or Mattie Porter's (McFadden's mother) meticulously sewn "Memories," in which she memorializes her late daughter Fredronica Ernestine Porter, who died in 1991, by incorporating remnant green and white material from a dress she'd made for her in the 1940s.

But other artists drew specifically on their heritage, as in superb pieces by Vivian Benton, using Adinkra symbols in "Sankofa," and Marguerite Gloster, whose "A Real Challenge" includes African fabric and strip construction; Christine McCray-Bethea's novel tribute to real African-American cowboy Nat Love ("Deadwood Dick"); or the fanciful beaded and applique visions of Cathleen Richardson Bailey, "Mother in the Beginning, Up From the Sea," and Sandra Ford, "MA".

Underground Railroad

Painter and Kingsley Association instructor Ruth Ward's "The Guiding Star" projects a glowing spirituality and was inspired by stories of slaves escaping to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

While the railroad was functioning, quilts are thought to have conveyed more subtle messages, encoded in standard block design, some of which are described in a gallery handout. The extent to which the communication occurred is contested, and by including this reference Black hopes to generate dialogue about it.

"The Guiding Star" by Pittsburgh quilter and painter Ruth Ward, was inspired by stories about the Underground Railroad, a network through which slaves escaped from slavery. It's in the exhibition "African American Quilters & Preservers of Western Pennsylvania at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

He also had a purpose in mind when he sought out quilt "preservers" -- people who care for quilts -- and the quilts exhibited in this category, made by Katie Louise Buggs Abernathy (1870-1956),Lillian Smith Carter (1899-1982) and Luella Baker Horton (1891-1920), are the three exceptions to the contemporary lean of the show. Completed in the 1920s to 1940s, these were working quilts that bring back memories to family members who on occasion snuggled beneath them.

"Quilting is so much about family," Black said admirably when recounting some of the stories that accompanied the heritage quilts.

Firdausi Bey, Abernathy's great-grandson and preserver of her handsome quilt, said "My only living memory of my great grandmother [who died when he was young] was her tucking me and my brother into bed [under one of her quilts]." Made from clothing that belonged to his family's men, he says "This is a key that unlocks the door; it's like time travel. It's something of what was -- that makes us who we are today."

Stories like this are of particular interest to Black, and he's taped interviews with each of the living quilters -- those mentioned plus exhibitors Gerry Benton, Robin Crawford, Johnnie Howard, Virginia Peterson and Karen Womack -- and with the preservers. These are being transcribed and will become part of the History Center archives.

Black's appointment as the first African American collections curator implies a commitment by the History Center to support research into the regional history of that group, as well as to add to its collection of artifact and archival material relating to African Americans in Western Pennsylvania. (Black is interested in receiving calls from anyone who may have items to contribute to the collection.)

These 20 fiber works and the biographical material associated with them form an introduction to an ongoing project that will enrich our region for generations to come.

Mary Thomas can be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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