Vibrancy And Vibration: The Artistic Color Wheel Of American Quilts

The crafter of Diamond Field, circa 1860, mosaic quilt, an expert of color and pattern, carefully arranges hexagons to produce an array of alternately perceived forms, including tumbling blocks, diamonds and stars. The strategic placement of orange within the black diamond grid creates a secondary pattern of circular shapes.

BOSTON, MASS. — The rooms are bursting with color and vivid designs at the latest exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). Surprisingly, paintings do not create such bold expressions, but scores of handmade quilts that echo Twentieth Century Abstraction, Op Art and the Color Field Movement. “Quilts and Color,” on view at the museum through July 27, features 58 of the 1,200 unique quilts collected countrywide over the past five decades by artists Gerald Roy and the late Paul Pilgrim. The collectors were among the first to recognize these crafts as much more than utilitarian.

The exhibition is divided into eight sections, each introduced by an abstract painting or print by artists such as Josef Albers, Victor Vasarely and Sol LeWitt. Pamela Parmal, the Boston MFA’s David and Roberta Logie curator of textile and fashion arts, says, “The Pilgrim/Roy collection would not have been possible before the acceptance of abstract art in the mid-Twentieth Century. Its emphasis of color and form over representational art opened the door to a re-evaluation of the quiltmaker’s art.”

Roy and Pilgrim met as students in the mid-1960s at the California College of Arts and Crafts. Both became art teachers in the San Francisco area after receiving master’s degrees from Mills College in Oakland. During a trip to Pennsylvania in the early 1970s, they saw their first Amish quilt, which reminded them of the color explorations in a Josef Albers painting. Ironically, both of them individually recognized the value of collecting these American crafts with their sophisticated use of color and pattern. The quilts exemplified the designs in Albers’ seminal 1963 book, Interaction of Color.

As the two collectors traveled countrywide, saw many quilts at country fairs, flea markets and auctions and talked with quilters and dealers, they confirmed how these crafts were not only bedcovers and bridal trousseaus, but artistic representations of America’s history. Many quilts were created by women from communities, such as the Amish and Mennonite, to express an artistic voice in a time when they had few opportunities to do so.

The eight themes of the quilt exhibition are integrated into the theory of the color wheel. One of the first quilts collected by Roy and Pilgrim is called Log Cabin, Barn Raising Variation (1879, Mrs Herrick), which features graduating intensities, or “gradations,” of color. The quilter picked levels of color to purposely create a step-by-step transition from one shade to the next, actually indicative of the building of a log cabin. Another quilter, a Mennonite, made a similar work in the 1880s, Sunshine and Shadow, which creates an optical illusion with repetitious concentrations of diamonds of reds, blues and greens moving from dark to light.

The aptly named “vibration” quilts, many of them made by the Mennonites of Pennsylvania and Ohio, actively force the viewer’s eyes to see shapes move with optical illusions of reds and greens and oranges. The “mixtures,” which contrast dark and light, blur rather than pop the colors.

Sunburst, 1856, by Mrs Ephraim Scott of Philadelphia, utilizes low contrasts of pinks and browns, greens and yellows, and Yellow Baskets (1920s–1930s, New York) juxtaposes bright yellows and whites: the quilt’s basket illusionary design switches from receding to advancing, eventually deemphasizing the pattern.

The exhibition also includes Pictorial Quilt, crafted by Harriet Powers, an African American Georgian slave and then a landowner with her husband after the Civil War. This icon, owned by Boston MFA, is one of two surviving Powers’ quilts, the other at the Smithsonian Institution. The quilt, which is appliqué, dyed and printed cotton fabrics applied to cotton, is divided into 15 pictorial rectangles and worked with pieces of beige, pink, mauve, orange, dark red, gray-green and shades of blue cotton. It is believed that this quilt was commissioned by a group of “faculty ladies” at Atlanta University and given along with Powers’ unique descriptions of each square as a gift to a retiring trustee.

In shades of browns, rusts and blacks, the visuals feature Bible scenes, local legends and national phenomena, such as the 1833 Leonid meteor shower.

Powers’ descriptions of the depictions include “Job praying for his enemies”; “The dark day of May 19, 1780...the cattle all went to bed, chickens to roost and the trumpet was blown. The sun went off to a small spot and then to darkness.” (It is thought that the complete darkness at midday was caused by a combination of forest fire smoke, a thick fog and cloud cover. It was so dark that candles needed to be lit from noon on. The dark lasted to the middle of the next night.); “The serpent lifted up by Moses and women bringing their children to look upon it to be healed”; and “The falling of the stars on Nov. 13, 1833. The people were frightened and thought that the end had come. God’s hand staid the stars. The varmints rushed out of their beds.”

Powers’ quilt is joined by other works that likewise capture history. The Double Wedding Ring, 1940, envisioned by another African American woman, depicts strong circles against a purple background. This quilt is located in the “singular visions” section of the exhibition, which displays unconventional colors, materials or techniques that make one-of-a-kind artistic statements. Typically, during the Depression era, quilts were crafted in pastels against white. Economy Patch Variation was instead produced by a Quaker woman in Philadelphia about 1870 out of fashionable dress silks of pink, blue, green, yellow and purple.

The “fan” quilts by the Pennsylvania Amish were perhaps inspired by the rising interest in Japanese art due to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. In the 1880s, the Pennsylvania Germans crafted the “scherenschnitte” (cutwork) quilts, which utilized symmetrical designs from scissor cuttings, similar to how snowflakes are presently fashioned out of folded paper. The quilt in the exhibition began as a pattern arising from a folded sheet of paper cut in quarters, opened and then traced on the red fabric nine times.

Parmal explains how quilt collecting has ebbed and flowed similar to other collectibles over the decades, with prices ranging from $20 to more than $100,000. “Right now there seems to be a slowing down of quilt collecting, so there is opportunity for collectors,” she says. Florence Peto, a quilt historian, antique textile collector and a Quilter’s Hall of Fame inductee, was one of the first to spread the quilting collecting passion.

When Peto started to collect quilts in the 1930s, she bravely knocked on the doors of both friends and strangers in her home state of New Jersey, asking if anyone had quilts stored away in trunks or the attic. She ended up finding some of the finest American quilts, including the famous Rising Sun by Mary Totten, now in the Smithsonian. In the center of the quilt is an eight-pointed star measuring 76 inches across, which contains 648 diamond-shaped pieces made of 11 different roller-printed cottons arranged concentrically by color.

In her circa 1860 will and testament, Totten emphasized the importance of her quilt: “First, after all my lawful debts are paid and discharged, I give and bequeath to Rachel Mary Drake, daughter of William Drake, deceased, my large spread called the Rising Sun.”

“Quilt collecting became very popular in the mid-1960s along with the colonial revival,” recalls Parmal. Now collectors find their own niche of interest in myriad categories, such as unusual colors, various historic periods, geographical locations, traditional versus nontraditional design and the age/gender of crafter — child, adult, male or female. “The Boston MFA just received a selection of quilts based on political themes,” another area of interest, adds Parmal.

The Reconciliation Quilt, pieced and sewed by Lucinda Ward Honstain, resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1867, sold in 1991 at Sotheby’s for $264,000. This item does not fit into the traditional quilt collector’s portfolio. Its theme is reconciliation after the Civil War, and it is made up of very little quilting, an unrecognizable pattern, and a unique design of appliquéd figures and phrases. However, for the American history quilting buff, it is like the holy grail.

“Many people who see our exhibit are amazed at the pristine condition of the quilts,” says Parmal. “That was one of the collectors’ criteria. They only bought quilts in good condition. Also, many of these quilts were ‘best use,’ only for special occasions and then stored most of the time. They were made with fabrics bought specifically for the quilt or with scraps left over from making dresses. It’s a myth that people made quilts from cut up dresses, when actually it was the scraps left over from making the dresses that were used, so they were still in good condition.”

Parmal explains how the history of quilting stems back to the Fourteenth Century Europe, simply made with a top, back and insulating layers stitched together. The few remaining quilts from this time period are made of plain undyed linen with complex designs that illustrate the medieval love story of Tristan and Isolde. Most likely, these quilts were used as decorative wall hangings rather than utilitarian purposes.

In the early 1600s, quilted bedcovers increased in popularity in Europe after their importation from India. These were luxury items, since only the select few could afford such bright and expertly made imported crafts. Seeing such wide interest in quilts, manufacturers in London, Marseille and Greece began producing them. Wealthy English women made their own fashionable creations in the early 1700s, and the craft crossed the ocean along with the colonial settlers.

The earliest American quilts are silk patchworks in traditional patterns with themes such as Yankee Puzzle, Hourglass and Bowtie. In many cases, following the Indian tradition, they feature a medallion surrounded by borders. Later in America, the silks changed into patterned cottons. Since quiltmaking is so time-consuming, at first they were primarily crafted by upper-class females who had spare time and the help of servants and/or slaves.

As time went on and technology advanced, textiles and thread became more affordable and quilting spread throughout the United States. During the first half of the Nineteenth Century, some wool and cotton coverlets were woven in the home, while others were professionally produced by male weavers with shops throughout the American East and Midwest. Mosaic quilts, comprising small, geometric shapes that fit together like tiles, were first popular in England and often made by men, according to Parmal.

The 1970s heralded in the Golden Age of quilting. In 1971, Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof mounted the “Abstract Design in American Quilts” exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, which introduced these humble domestic items as corollaries to painters, such as Barnett Newman, Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers. In addition, in 1973 the art historian Patricia Mainardi published Quilts: the Great American Art in The Feminist Art Journal and positioned quilts in American feminist history. Holstein, van der Hoof and Mainardi were similarly voicing support for the right of quilts to be considered an important American art form and their crafters recognized as artists.

Today, quilts are considered eclectic: They bring together crafters to share each other’s company in quilting bees; they help children recall their colonial heritage; they are sewn by women and men as gifts and family heirlooms; and many times they are used daily as bedcovers and wall art and other times only brought out for special occasions. However, uniquely designed and colored quilts have long been created for competitions and displays at special events such as agricultural fairs. With some of these quilts, the crafters follow the traditional styles, while others, like those celebrated at the Boston MFA, take the road less traveled, “and that has made all the difference.”

The Boston MFA is on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue. For more information, or 617-267-9300.

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