Patches From the Past
Scraps of Fabric, Sewing & Quilting History

Talking Quilts:
An exhibition featuring words
as the primary design construct

~by Susan Flamm ~
American Folk Art Museum

Talking Quilts explores the visual textures of language as expressed through approximately twenty quilts made by women from the mid-19th century through the present. On view at the American Folk Art Museum from February 11-August 1, 2004, this exhibition is the first to consider the aesthetic qualities of words as they have been applied to quilts. Decisions of word choice, graphic strategy, and technique embroidery, stencil, piecing, or appliqué transform surfaces into monumental assertions of identity, statements of support or belief, and objects of protection. But they also provide the primary visual interest through letters that are by turns fluid, childish, subtle, and bold.

Organized by Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator and director of exhibitions of the American Folk Art Museum, Talking Quilts includes outstanding examples from the museum's collection and other institutions as well as private collections.

Talking Quilts: Pieties Quilt

Since colonial times, the notion of "marking" textiles, of applying letters to cloth, has been a basic skill taught to young girls. Not surprisingly, the words that appear on the earliest quilts most frequently included the quiltmaker s name and sometimes an important date, such as a birth or marriage. The subtext of even these simple markings, however, was a declaration of self. In a society where women held few legal rights, her name was prominently displayed within the household over which she presided.

Quilts that feature words as the predominant design motif emerged toward the middle of the 19th century. Made in 1848, the Pieties Quilt, a prime example in the Museum's collection and the earliest quilt in the exhibition, is one of a small group of quilts from upstate New York that employ letters based upon counted thread work. Each letter is pieced from seven small stacked blocks similar to stitched letters in alphabet samplers. Typically these quilts were fashioned in cottons of only two colors, in this case, red and white, and many relate religious sentiments and homilies. Maria Cadman Hubbard imparted the following advice in her Pieties Quilt: "If you can't be a golden pippin, don t turn crab apple." More than 150 years later, these words continue to inspire a smile because they were not spoken and quickly forgotten, but lovingly pieced into a quilt made in Hubbard s 79th year for a now unknown recipient.

In the early decades of the 20th century, religious verses began to appear more frequently, especially in southern quilts. Many of these quilts assume a protective connotation. Psalm 23 Quilt made in Canton, Mississippi about 1930 includes the full text of the Lord's Prayer. It becomes both a blanket of protection for a loved one while sleeping and also a prayer of solace should he not awaken. Set on a horizontal access the stacked lines of text run laterally edge to edge, divided by a yellow rule. The words are comprised of all capital letters fashioned from red cloth. The lettering resonates with a vernacular tradition of hand-painted signboards prevalent throughout the southern United States. The handwriting of the maker is evident in the shape of the letters, contributing to the intimate and personal nature of this evocative work.

Talking Quilts: 23rd Psalm

The Stormy Day Quilt links the visual designs in the quilt to a textual tradition. The surface is a diary of the making of the quilt as well a commentary about the weather, harking back to a long tradition of American diarists starting each entry with an observation on the weather. "The First Squair 1903/Made on Monday Cold/Comensed January The 9" is in the lower left-hand corner and "The Last Squair Finished April The 5 1904" is in the upper right hand corner. Within the rigid geometry of the square blocks set on point are multicolored balloon-like letters in original spellings that tumble out in informal, whimsical arrangements.

Over time, women consistently turned towards quilts and other textile forms to record their creative impulses and responses. Often, their words spoke of political affiliations, social movements, community, and national causes. Unlike autograph quilts made for such purposes, the Freedom Quilt, by contemporary African American quilter Jessie Telfair, boldly declares that the word is the message. Only the word "freedom" in red, white, and blue block letters is repeated across its expanse.

A similar use of script handwriting for surface text is seen in two contemporary quilts that deal with a sense of identity Robin Schwalb's 1998 quilt, Strong Words and Kyra Hicks's Black Barbie quilt of 1996. Schwalb uses the opening lines of Shakespeare's sonnet 53 to question her identity ("What is your substance, whereof are you made") and Hicks uses Barbie to question her place in American society ("Barbie America's Doll was never intended for me"). Both employ the use of shadow and substance: Schwalb's subliminal stenciled text behind the bold calligraphic writing repeats lines of dialogue from the television show, "Homicide: Life on the Streets." Hicks's refrain "Black Barbie has no name" written in shadow text reinforces the hidden nature of the black version of the Barbie doll which was usually advertised behind white Barbies and rarely had its own name.

In each of these quilts words play multiple roles. "As an early form of what might be termed "female graffiti," quilts have historically provided a forum for women to voice opinions and exercise power. Today women continue to talk back through the words they apply to their quilts," notes Ms. Hollander.

Talking Quilts provides an intriguing counterpoint to Tools of Her Ministry: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan, which will be on view at the same time, from February 25-September 26, 2004. This exhibition is a major retrospective of the work of an important contemporary African American self-taught artist who used text prominently in her artwork.

Public Programming

Talking Quilts will be accompanied by a wide range of public programming of lectures and gallery talks on the various artistic and historical aspects of the quilts. Sunday afternoon workshops for families include a tour of the exhibition with a Museum educator followed by a quilt-related studio workshop.

About the Museum

Since its founding in 1961, the American Folk Art Museum has been one of the nation s foremost resources for the exhibition, study, and preservation of folk art. It is home to one of the world s preeminent collections of folk art dating from the 17th century to the present, including paintings, sculpture, textiles, and other decorative arts, as well as the work of contemporary self-taught artists from the U.S. and abroad.

In December 2001, the Museum opened its new building and first permanent home at 45 West 53rd Street. Designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, it has been hailed as "one of the most influential examples of modern architecture of the century," as well as a vital cultural addition to New York City.

American Folk Art Museum is located at 45 West 53 Street, New York 10019. Hours: Wed.-Sun. 10:30 am - 5:30 pm; Fri. until 7:30 pm; Closed Mon. and Tues. Admission: $9; Students and Seniors $7. Admission free on Fri. from 5:30 - 7:30 pm. Museum Shop and Café. For further information, or call 212/265-1040. For press information: Susan Flamm, 212/265-1040 ext. 113;

The Pictured Quilts

The above quilt pictures are show with permission. Click on each of them to see a larger version.

Following is information on each pictured quilt.

Psalm 23 Quilt
Lena Moore (d. 1965)
Canton, Mississippi; c. 1930
65 x 78"
Collection of Janet M. Green

(Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author.)

Pieties Quilt
Probably Maria Cadman Hubbard (possibly 1769-?)
Austerlitz, Columbia County, New York; 1848
88 1/2 x 81"
Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Cyril Irwin Nelson
in loving memory of his parents, Cyril Arthur and Elise Macy Nelson

Smithsonian Examples - Appliqued Inscriptions

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