Friday, February 19, 2016

Encountering African American Quilts at the Flint Institute of Arts

detail Lone Star attributed to Mary Duncan c. 1950
The Flint Institute of Arts has an exhibit of African American quilts through April 10, 2016. The thirty quilts are beautifully presented. The highlight of the show is the display of quilts by Yvonne Wells whose pictorial quilts depict icons such as Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson and Elvis. She also has story quilts relating to Civil Rights, one of which brought me to tears.

Lone Star
From Heart to Hand includes 30 quilts on loan from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts that showcase line, color, and pattern in traditional, improvisational, and appliqué quilts. Materials employed include clothing, feedsacks, new fabric, ties, and jeans. The quilts are hand quilted, often in the Baptist (or Methodist) Fan, concentric arcs of quilting across the surface, or following the seam lines.
Log Cabin variation, Sallie Gladney, 1989
Housetop quilt, Plummer T. Pettway, c. 1960-70
Patriotic Stars, Mary Maxtion, c. 1992
Roman Stripes, Lureca Outland,c. 1989
detail Everybody Quilt, Addie Pelt, c. 1988
African American quilts are generally identified by their color use, asymmetry, improvisation, and over-sized design patterns. 'Tweaking' a pattern is a part of their creative self-expression.  Many quiltmakers also look back to African textile roots for inspiration.

The Gees Bend quiltmakers have become identified as representative of African American quilts. But African American quilts include all kinds of quilts and you can not identify the cultural background of a quilt just by looking at it. Many fall into the realm of Folk Art, a term which today is even being stretched as quilt artists are inspired by 'folk' traditions. In the end, only provenance can identify a quilt as made by an African American, Southerner, folk artist, or quilt artist.
Nora's Necktie Flower Garden, Nora Ezell, 1994
Pig Pen Quilt, late 20th c
Log Cabin/Pig Pen variation, Catherine Somerville, c. 1950-60
Crib quilt, c. 1945
I toured the exhibit with my local quilt guild. The quilts challenge conventional wisdom about quilts, and art, what materials are 'suitable' for quilts, and if precision is better than naive improvisation.
The Lord is My Shuper, Sarah Mary Taylor, c. 1989
detail The Lord is My Shuper
Yvonne Wells was a high school teacher when she made her first quilt in 1979. She progressed from abstract quilts to free form cut appliqué pieces sewn raw edged to the quilt surface. I had a visceral reaction to her quilts. When at lunch the question was raised, "but are they art?" I quickly reacted and said, "If it changes your perception, it's art."
detail Humpty Dumpty, 1988 by Yvonne Wells
Leaving the first room of the exhibit, which included geometric and more traditional quilt patterns, and entering the second room with Well's art was a real shift. I had to LOOK at the quilt and understand the message. I heard people asking what motifs stood for, deciphering the image and the message. Here was Humpty Dumpty, there was Elvis with his sequins. Jackie Robinson's bat was huge and shiny with buttons, representing the impact of his skill and life. Helen Keller sat with her book of Braille, appliquéd cocktail napkins shining white against the dark background. The Higgenbottoms were a happy, well dressed pair. They make you smile.
Elvis, Yvonne Wells, 1991
detail Elvis
Helen Keller by Yvonne Wells
detail Helen Keller quilt
 detail Jackie Robinson by Yvonne Wells
The Higgenbottoms II, 1989, Yvonne Wells
The last quilt I looked at had a striking blood-red background with stick figures and scenic motifs scattered around the surface. I noted a grave yard, a circle of figures around a large man at a podium, a bus with white stick figures in front and a lone black stick figure sitting in the rear. Then I saw the stick figure hanging from a tree, My knees buckled, and I collapsed on a nearby bench and shuddered. And had a good cry.
Civil Rights in the South III, 1989, Yvonne Wells
I had not expected, ever, to see a lynching depicted on a quilt. Quilts were warm and cozy and pretty. Quilts showered you with love. In the hands of an artist a quilt is art that shouts to the world, "you must change your life." Or at least change your perception. Art shows us what we know and cannot bear to observe. It takes us by the throat and draws our breath and leaves us weak with realization of what has been waiting to be understood all along.

The title of the quilt is Civil Rights in the South.
detail Civil Rights in the South III
Detail Civil Rights in the South III
Detail Civil Rights in the South III
Then I noted that a figure in the circle was being hit by a spray. I learned it was a fire hose, held by the yellow figure. There are slaves picking cotton, a dog waiting to be unleashed for attack, George Wallace baring the door to the school. And along the left the figures of the martyred boys Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman laying behind the dam where buried after being murdered because they worked for voting rights.
detail Civil Rights in the South III

Before we left the museum we visited Jacob Lawrence's The Legend of John Brown prints based on his 1941 paintings in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art.


Before we left we visited the gallery with landscapes, including works from my favorite Hudson River and Luminist school paintings. After delving into the depths of evil humans can plumb I was glad to be reminded of our proper place in the world, in nature. We are insignificant in the large scheme of things. If only that knowledge brought the wisdom that we are all in this together, sisters and brothers for our short time, and endeavor to bring love and mercy and empathy to all our interactions.

Jasper Cropsey, Hudson River View, 1872
detail Hudson River View

Martin Heade, Sunset on the Marshes, 1863

Pierre Damoye, Flooded Meadows, 1880
Dove Descending, Yvonne Wells, 1993