Follow by Email

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Women's Museum showcases quiltessential art

Mary A. Stinson (American)
Crazy Quilt, circa 1880

Brooklyn Museum, photograph by Gavin Ashworth, 2012

Quilts didn't mean much to me until I saw 35 of them recently at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The quilt which greets visitors at the entrance to the presentation is more than 200 years old.

Pictorial Quilt, circa 1795
Brooklyn Museum, photograph by Gavin Ashworth, 2012

Probably made in England or Ireland

I left the museum more than a little astonished by the creativity and degree of difficulty the quilts exacted from their makers.  I saw splashy quilts, historical quilts, colorful quilts with stories, in an exceptional exhibition at the museum, Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts. 

On the day I went, I lucked out to find (and tag along, i.e., eavesdrop on) three quilting experts from Country Piecemakers of central Virginia.  The ladies had come up to Washington by train to "scout" the show for their colleagues "down South" and see if it was worth a trip up by the rest of their "bee."

Interrupting them with usual diplomatic flair, I asked: "Does it meet muster?" In unison they answered enthusiastically "yes!" and told me the Hexagon Quilt alone was worth it. (Later on, they amended their statement to include a "crazy quilt." More than one "crazy quilt" hangs in the display, but I think they were talking about Mary Stinson's from 1880, above.)

Said quilter Colleen Woodcock: "It's freaking me out because it's so cool." (I am not sure if she was talking about the quilt or the show, maybe both.) Her companions were Donna Goff and Sandie Terrien who have studios, entire rooms in their homes devoted to their art.

Elizabeth Welsh from Virginia
Medallion Quilt, circa 1830
Brooklyn Museum, photograph by Gavin Ashworth, 2012

Anyway, If you admire creativity and fine craftswomanship, are fascinated by the history of art and culture, and support women's endeavors, this is a exposition you do not want to miss.

The name, Workt by Hand, comes from an archaic spelling of "worked," and the phrase "workt by hand" is one often repeated in historical quilting literature, according to a museum statement. Besides, Catherine Morris, the show's curator and editor of the handsome 124-paged catalogue, says the abbreviated term is quite fitting in today's social media world.

Pictorial Quilt, circa 1840
cotton and cotton thread
Brooklyn Museum, photograph by Gavin Ashworth, 2012

The quilt above, according to the catalogue, was likely made by several different women. All the blocks are individually designed, and the one with a woman's silhouette includes initials, a cat, and the symbol of the Freemasons, a square and compass.

Anna Williams, Baton Rouge, Louisiana (1927-2010)
Quilt, 1995
Cotton, synthetics
Brooklyn Museum, photograph by Gavin Ashworth, 2012

It is likely that in the "early days," wealthier women who had more time on their hands than farming women, took up quilting, and were probably aided by slave help. And it is plausible, too, that the quilts were not used for beds but were hung, like they are in the show which is arranged chronologically (except when similar designs demand to be together).

Most of the quilts are from the 19th century but span the 18th through the 20th centuries and come from Europe and the U.S. They all are part of the 100-year-old collection of 160 quilts at the Brooklyn Museum which organized the show. Ms. Morris is the museum's curator at its Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.  

The catalogue calls the quilts "prescient precursors to modernist abstraction and material documents of the history of women." Their legacy was launched in modern times with the 1971 show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Abstract Design In American Quilts, which attracted huge media attention and introduced a new perspective about "women's art."

Scholar Janneken Smucker, who is speaking at the museum on April 24 in a free talk, says the Whitney show "elevated quilts to the status of art." 

Fine detail, vibrant colors and designs, appreciation for exquisite artistry and a brief education into what goes into quilting (including the loooong time required to make one) are some of the "takeaways" I took home, and you can likely find more.

Related events at the National Museum of Women in the Arts include:

April 2, 12 - 12:30 p.m. Gallery talk. Free to attend.

April 5, 10 a.m. - 2 p.m.: "Workshop: Catch the Quilting Bug-Sashiko Sampler." In conjunction with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, Jennifer Lindsay will teach Japanese embroidery techniques in a program for those age 10 and above. (Children 10 - 14 need adult accompaniment.) Materials are included. ($15, adults; $13, students, seniors, and members. Reservations required:

April 5, 12 - 5 p.m.: "Demonstration: Discover Quilting." Free to attend.

April 6, 12 - 5 p.m. Free admission all day (first Sunday of the month)

April 9, 12 - 12:30 p.m. Gallery talk. Free.

April 16, 12 - 12:30 p.m. Gallery talk. Free.

April 18, 12 - 1 p.m. Curator talk by a quilt expert. Free.

April 24, 11:30 a.m.- 12:30 p.m. Janneken Smucker, assistant professor of history at West Chester University, will talk about the exhibition's content and themes. Free.

April 25, 7 p.m. Spring Gala black tie soiree for the museum with cocktails, dinner, dancing, silent auction, and tours of the exhibition. Call Melody Ain at 202-266-2815 or send email to

What: Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts

When: Now through April 27, 2014, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, and 12 - 5 p.m., Sundays

Where: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005

Admission: Free on the first Sunday of the month (April 6) and on other days: $10, adults; $8, seniors and students, and always free for members and children, 18 and under.

For more information: 202-783-5000

Metro station: Metro Center. Exit at 13th Street and walk two blocks north.

No comments: