Fabric of a Nation
American Quilt Stories
Discover the extraordinary stories behind 300 years of American quilts
Quilts and coverlets have a unique capacity to tell stories: their tactile, intricate mode of creation and their traditional use in the home impart deeply personal narratives of their creators, and the many histories they express reveal a complex record of America. Quilts have also been used in North America since the 17th century, and their story, told by many voices, has evolved alongside the United States.
Upending expectations about quilt displays—traditionally organized by region, form, or motif—“Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories” is a loosely chronological presentation in seven thematic sections that voices multiple perspectives. Visitors see and hear from artists, educators, academics, and activists, and the remarkable examples on view are by an underrecognized diversity of artistic hands and minds from the 17th century to today, including female and male, known and unidentified, urban and rural makers; immigrants; and Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, and LGBTQIA+ Americans. The exhibition invites visitors to celebrate the artistry and intricacy of quilts and coverlets and the lives they document, while also considering the complicated legacies ingrained in the fabric of American life.
The exhibition brings together the only two surviving quilts by artist Harriet Powers, displaying the MFA’s iconic Pictorial quilt (1895–98) alongside the Bible quilt (1885–86), on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, for the first time. Powers, who was born into slavery in Athens, Georgia, was an exceptional artist and storyteller. But who gets to tell her story? By looking at Powers’s life and work through the lens of history and hearing from a variety of individuals, visitors are encouraged to make resonant connections to their own lives. Among other highlights are Bisa Butler’s To God and Truth (2019), a vibrantly colorful and elaborately patterned quilt based on an 1899 photograph of the Morris Brown College baseball team; Carla Hemlock’s Survivors (2011–13), in which figures and names of 48 First Nations and Indigenous groups that survive today are stitched around a traditional pattern; and a dazzling range of works by artists including Agusta Agustsson, Sanford Biggers, Sabrina Gschwandtner, Sylvia Hernández, Susan Hoffman, Virginia Jacobs, Edward Larson, Carolyn L. Mazloomi, Tomie Nagano, John Thomas Paradiso, Rowland Ricketts, Faith Ringgold, Gio Swaby, and Michael C. Thorpe. Together, the masterpieces in this exhibition tell inclusive, human stories that link us across time and articulate a rich, and richly complicated, story of our shared history.
- Ann and Graham Gund Gallery (Gallery LG31)
Unidentified artist, Civil War Zouave quilt, probably mid to late 1860s
Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt, 1895–98
Carla Hemlock, Survivors, 2011–13
Irene Williams, Vote quilt, 1975
Bisa Butler, To God and Truth, 2019
Virginia Jacobs, Krakow Kabuki Waltz, 1987
Richard H. Rowley, A Century of Progress, 1933
Harriet Powers, Bible quilt, 1885–86
Sanford Biggers, A Deeper Form of Chess, 2017
Unidentified artist, Amish Floating Bars quilt, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, United States, about 1940
Unidentified artist, Hoosier suffrage quilt, probably Indiana, United States, before 1920
The Lonely Palette Podcast
Dive deeper into Harriet Powers’s Pictorial quilt with a new episode of The Lonely Palette from Tamar Avishai, the MFA’s podcaster-in-residence.
Transcript for Harriet Powers, Pictorial Quilt Episode
VOICE 1: So in this quilt, I see 15 panels, five across, three down, and each panel has some sort of image, like maybe a story that it's telling.
VOICE 2: Each block tells its own story, and kind of seems like, maybe like a picture book. Each section.
VOICE 3: I see all the work that they did, all by hand that takes time and time, and to be a good one and be able to do it.
VOICE 1: It's squares, but they're not perfect. It's not perfect lines. It's sort of it looks very handmade and a little wavy, like the person didn't have a ruler.
VOICE 3: Looks like there might be a little bit of...lemme see...appliqué going on here, too. And I see some embroidery too, because those eyes are embroidered right there, right there, and right there. And that's also back stitching, which is part of embroidery. So this uses appliqué, embroidery and quilting techniques. So it does everything, a little bit of everything. It's amazing, actually. I'm a quilter myself, but this is amazing.
VOICE 4: And there's a lot of color, although it's kind of muted, except for the oranges, which are very bright. They are, like, these people in many of them that are doing little actions, and there are some birds and some other animals, and it's kind of childish drawings like child, like child shapes. It's very, very cool.
VOICE 5: You know, when they discovered drawings in caves? These are kind of like the drawings you see in the caves from early man, I think.
VOICE 6: So I see images of what I think are stories from the Bible. There's a person looks like falling off a boat, maybe being swallowed up by a whale, maybe that's a story of Jonah.
VOICE 1: One has two of each kind, which I think could be Noah's Ark.
VOICE 6: And then I see images of the three people on the cross.
VOICE 1: And in a lot of them, their arms are facing up, which makes me think of praising.
VOICE 7: And you see a number of figures that look like they have their hands raised to receive these sort of, I guess, lights that are coming down. And so it's a, for me, it's interesting to wonder if it's awe, if it's excitement, is it fear?
VOICE 8: I see a lot of things in it. I mean, what I see is slavery. I see, you know, such a lot of nice little things in that, as well. It's not all sad. It's happy as well. And I can't look through the eyes of a slave person who did this. So I'm just looking through it from my eyes, and that's all I see. I don't see all sad stuff. I see happy stuff too.
My husband and I never went on a honeymoon. I don’t know how many newlyweds have this same story: you put all this energy into the wedding, the logistical details, the, uh, personality management, and the idea of planning a whole other trip on top of it just feels impossible. We promised ourselves we’d get to it eventually, but bank accounts got drained, way led onto way, and it just never happened. So the following year, when it seemed like everyone we knew was getting married in every state in the country, we made a pledge to go. It’ll be like ten different minimoons, we told ourselves. Two days in San Francisco here, a night in Hartford there, a positive, yes let’s attitude, and maybe we’ll pick up a memento or two along the way to give the year of the minimoon its full honey meaning.
So fast forward to 6 months later, we’re in a country store in the middle of nowhere outside of Denver, Colorado, about to celebrate the nuptials of my husband’s parents’ friends’ daughter. And I’m standing in front of the most beautiful quilt I’ve ever seen. It’s white with green and teal interlocking rings, and it’s gripping me, and I’m doing everything I can to talk myself out of buying it. I mean, it’s expensive, it’s just a quilt. I can buy one anywhere without splurging. After all, it might get spilled on or loved a little too hard by our cat. And sure, it will look beautiful for a while, but inevitably I’ll stop seeing it.
And of course, we do these mental gymnastics when it comes to usable art, that is, craft. This is the dilemma of being confronted by a world where cheap utilitarian machine-made objects reign supreme, and separate themselves from the aesthetic decisions of individual, talented hands. This quilt, I had to explain to myself, is expensive because it’s handmade. Someone took the time to stitch all those little stitches. Someone chose that specific pattern, in this case, the double wedding ring pattern, to tell a story, to infuse that otherwise banal fabric with meaning. Why is this any different than a painter with a canvas or a sculptor with a chisel, other than the fact that I get to actually touch it? And more than that, use it, smell it, infuse it with my smell, my story?
Because obviously, we bought it. Double wedding ring pattern? Come on. And it’s our wedding quilt, our minimoons quilt, our memento of profound meaning. It’s been on our bed for the last six years, a cuddly home to our sleeping cat, then to our infant son. And what’s amazing is, I never actually stop seeing it. Like any piece of good art, even one that I snuggle under to watch Netflix on my phone, it never stops being evocative. And it never stops being meaningful.
But you can’t convince someone that craft is like that unless they’ve experienced it themselves. No one thinks that quilts, for example, or a museum exhibition about quilts will be as interesting or historically compelling as they actually are. So let’s start by looking at their role in the culture: scholars tend to point to quilt-making, and specifically quilt storytelling, as a distinctly American phenomenon. Quilts that are art objects run the gamut, like America itself, of identities, ethnicities, socioeconomic strata, and geography – that is, equally common to both rural and urban areas of the country. I mean, when a craft is passed down through the generations, it’s enormously egalitarian. And because they’re created to live in the most intimate spaces in people’s lives, they’re deeply personal and personalized. And this American, egalitarian, and intimate art form is perhaps no better expressed than in the Pictorial Quilt of Harriet Powers, one of the most exceptional objects you never realized was a part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s collection. It, along with the Bible Quilt, are the only two surviving quilts by Powers, and maybe one of the most famous and well-preserved examples of African American folk art and 19th century quilting. And yet, even with these kinds of superlatives, it isn’t so surprising that you’ve probably never heard of it: like I said, quilting, and the craft side of fiber art in general, tends to be overlooked. As we briefly talked about in episode 15, it’s largely been dismissed as “women’s work,” too utilitarian to be taken seriously as an art form. I mean, what other domestic tasks are we going to call art? Doing the dishes?
This attitude changed, mercifully, in the 1960s and 70s, when newly liberated women artists, and the work borne from their needles and thread, entered the mainstream. And with this liberation came the enormous power of what Ghanian fiber artist El Anatsui calls “the poverty of materials” – that is, the art of creating something valuable from what is essentially discarded scraps. In his case, it was the metal caps and the aluminum stripped from beer bottles, and in the case of 18th and 19th century quilters, it was the remnants of old clothes and other bits of used cloth, the detritus that, as Anatsui continues, “in no way precludes the telling of rich and wonderful stories.”
And it’s these humble, reused materials, given new life as a means of conveying these rich and wonderful stories, that are the cornerstones of a quilt like this, and a life lived by Harriet Powers. The American novelist Alice Walker all but anticipates Anatsui’s words when she describes her first experience with Powers’ Bible Quilt, writing for Ms. Magazine in 1974, that despite the fact that “it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.” And it’s a testament to Powers’ innate talent and vision as a quilter that her work was able to speak for her so clearly. She was a black woman born into slavery in Athens, Georgia in 1837, freed at the end of the Civil War and then newly oppressed by economic hardship, despite ultimately becoming a landowner. She was a mother to at least nine children, and an expert, self-taught seamstress, with a specific skill with what is known as applique – that is, sewing shapes and pictures of fabric onto a blocked patch of quilt – which not only referenced West African techniques, but, in her hands, became uniquely American.
And it should be said that the kind of appliqued quilt we’re talking about is a very specific kind of storytelling. The double wedding ring pattern of my minimoons quilt is something else: a recognizable motif, known throughout the quilting world and imbued with legible cultural significance, but, at the end of the day, is still just a repeating geometric pattern – if it tells a story, it’s the story of my cat, my marriage, my baby, my bedroom. But an appliqued quilt is created to tell a story all its own, before there’s any projected significance. Powers’ two surviving quilts, this Pictorial Quilt, as we’ll be discussing, and the Bible Quilt, which lives at the Smithsonian, are literally narratives, like a storyboard for a film, but without a clear narrative sequence: instead, we have fifteen densely appliqued squares depicting biblical scenes that speak to the intensity of Powers’ Christian faith, and her awareness of her current moment. And this is important, we’ll come back to it. The style, meanwhile, which emphasizes color, form, and contours over specific detail, share a kind of free-flowing, groundless steam of consciousness that call to mind the later paper cutouts of Matisse, or, as we’ll get into more later, the admittedly far more grotesque silhouettes of Kara Walker. There are clear references to the Old and New Testaments, to the stories of Job, of Adam and Eve in the Garden, of Jonah and the whale, of figures on crucifixes, of the Book of Revelations. But we also see current events, as described by Powers herself: “Cold Thursday, 10 of February, 1895, a woman frozen in prayer.” Other squares depict natural phenomena from the more recent past: a meteor shower from 1833; a forest fire from 1780. And these scenes, side-by-side, reveal two things about Harriet Powers, which I’ve just alluded to: first, as Alice Walker inferred, she was a woman deeply committed to her own Christian faith – in Powers’ own words, her quilts intended to “preach the gospel in patchwork” – and secondly, she possessed an ability to tap into the modernity of her own moment, to recognize the inherent value of life as it was being lived, as seen through stories both contemporary and timeless.
And both of these elements, the timeless religious aspect and the contemporary moment, are reflected in the history of ownership of these two quilts, what curators call the provenance. It’s hardly surprising that the quilts have always had white owners, although as far as records tell us, they were owners who were deeply moved by the content, by the clear intensity of Powers’ vision. The Bible Quilt, which, true to its named contained exclusively biblical scenes, and was created around 1886, a decade before the Pictorial Quilt, was owned by Jennie Smith, an art teacher at a girls’ school, who had originally seen the quilt displayed at the Northeast Georgia Fair and was moved to offer Powers $10 for it, the equivalent of about $300 today, describing Powers’ style as “bold and rather on the impressionist’ order, while there is a naivete of expression that is delicious.” Powers refused to sell at any price, on the grounds that the quilt, the “darling offspring of my brain,” was too meaningful to part with, although she did end up eventually selling it to Smith for half that amount a few years later, when Powers fell into her own financial hardships.
It’s tempting to dismiss this story as a straight-up taking advantage of a power disparity, although to her credit, Jennie Smith did make an effort to keep this quilt publicly and politically visible, displaying it at the Negro Building of the Cotton States at the Atlanta International Exposition in 1895. It was an enormously popular exhibit that attracted almost a million visitors, and its popularity might very well have paved the way for the Pictorial Quilt’s commission. And it’s the provenance of the Pictorial Quilt that carries us into the 20th century still indebted to Powers’ original intent. Because the Pictorial Quilt, too, was highly regarded for the emotional authenticity of its religious content. It was most likely given as a gift at the appointment of the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall as president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1897. Hall had served on the board of trustees of Atlanta University, a university itself founded in 1865 with the intention of educating newly emancipated slaves, and Hall was one of several white Protestant ministers who sincerely intended to offer help and guidance to the black community at the time, however helpful it ultimately was. Still, there was no question in the minds of the “faculty ladies” who banded together to purchase the quilt for the occasion that a gift like this, created deep from the soul of an emancipated black seamstress, would be both deeply meaningful to Hall, and optically advantageous to his cause.
The quilt was proudly hung up in Hall’s summer residence in Westport, Massachusetts for more than 60 years – and, side note, imagine passing that every day on the way downstairs to the breakfast nook; you know they also never stopped seeing it. Hall’s son then approached the MFA to sell the quilt in 1960. And amazingly enough, even the museum, once it ultimately acquired the quilt a few years later, didn’t really know the value of what they now possessed, keeping it in storage for another decade until, as I said earlier, second-wave feminism introduced the world to the value of quilt-making, and the MFA realized it was sitting on a historical gold mine.
And it’s easy to see why a quilt like this was so poised to make a splash this moment of re-discovery, a double-whammy moment of early postmodern identity politics in the 1970s and the rise of outsider art. The phrase “outsider art” was coined in 1972, and refers to art by artists who are self-taught – we talked about it briefly in episode 36 in reference to Cecilia Gimenez, the Spanish hero who took it upon herself to restore that Ecce Homo fresco to its ahem present glory. But Gimenez aside, it’s an enormous disservice to think of outsider artists as bad artists, or the crudity of technique as inherently worse than that of artists trained in the finest art academies. On the contrary, there is a richness and an authenticity that can be found in artists who are first and foremost observers, who receive their training from “amateurs” passing techniques down through generations, the way that the best recipes come from grandmothers, not the Food Network. This lack of formal training shifts the emphasis towards intuition, towards the inherent emotional power of work that just needs to be created even if, in the case of Powers, the corners of the quilt don’t quite match up. And there are many examples of artists who intuitively create both narrative and abstract designs without the benefit of formal training – look no further than the quilters of Gee’s Bend in Alabama, a small, isolated hamlet just southwest of Selma, and home to some of the most extraordinary and important contributions to black visual culture in the country. Many current residents of the community can trace their ancestral lineage back to slavery, and then where freed slaves subsequently stayed as sharecroppers, all the way to the 1960s, when a quilting bee was birthed that eventually gained national attention for the artistry and historical and political significance of their quilts – which, as with Powers’ quilts, were made of found scraps of clothing and borrowed from both West African aesthetic traditions, and, uniquely, Native American aesthetic traditions. What’s especially striking about these quilts is that the lack of formal training meant that they had no constraints, no obligation to follow, for example, the strict double wedding ring pattern of my minimoons quilt, and so you end up with fiber art that’s truly, artistically imaginative, and maybe wouldn’t even be out of place alongside some of the most avant garde mid-century minimalist abstract paintings. Take, for example, the Bricklayer or Courthouse Steps quilt from 1955, attributed to sisters Creola and Georgianna Bennett Pettway. The pattern, called the Housetop or Log Cabin pattern, lines up strips of deep, vibrant red to create an hourglass shape that appears to recede into the horizon as starkly as Carmen Herrera’s color field painting that we looked at in episode 43. The patterning is as sophisticated and precise as anything you would expect from a formally-trained quilter, or a formally-trained abstract artist, and maybe even more evocative for its intuitive creativity. Not everyone can look at a bag of clothing scraps and create a design so clean, and so arresting.
And I should add that there’s another, more politically-charged element to the idea of the untrained, the crude, even the grotesque – a word that, depending on context, can run the table from simply distorted to truly monstrous. Once outside the formal rules, and once within one’s own subjective emotional landscape, a lot can be said through passionate, unconstrained narrative that sits outside formal convention, almost as though the outsiders to the art world can speak a more authentic kind of truth. As I alluded to earlier, it’s hard not to see the applique cutouts of Powers’ quilts and not see forward to Matisse, who basked in the joy of untrained non-western “naivete,” or, more brutally, to our current moment and the silhouettes of Kara Walker, whom we discussed briefly in episode 50. Walker’s work, like the MFA’s “The Rich Soil Down There,” has become almost synonymous with cutouts of deeply unsettling narratives that speak to the horrors of slavery. These scenes are comprised entirely or silhouettes, which makes you feel like you’re furtively spying on something horrifying from a distance from behind a scrim, scenes of blatant violence, forced sexual acts, unmoored bodily functions, an overall breaking down of societal norms into a shadowy bestial free-for-all that entirely subverts the staid portraiture we’re used to associating with early 19th century upper-class silhouettes. There is of course nothing so disturbing depicted in Powers’ quilts, nor would her Christian values or contemporary mores ever have let her entertain the idea of depicting such scenes, but it’s interesting to see Walker appropriate elements of this style to speak to those unspoken realities of Powers’ moment, and in language that would have been recognizable to the moment, in a grotesquely subversive way, as perhaps the moment demanded.
And I think maybe this is why stories, even on quilts we might not have ever noticed, or even bothered to consider art, are so important. Whether they are the stories sewn onto the fabric, or the stories acquired over the history of ownership, or the stories that are left untold in their moment, Harriet Powers understood the importance of telling them. And not just the stories from her faith, or of her moment, but the story of quilting itself, their narrative power, which she apparently talked about to “anyone who would listen.” And people did listen. She was a formidable presence, clearly not a woman afraid to live her truth – even the only known photograph of her shows her wearing a typically severe expression and a wonderfully whimsical apron, embroidered with the same style of applique that we see in her quilts. And the fact that she was known for this in her own day, given her circumstances, and the fact that her role in quilting history was later obscured and needed to be rediscovered when it was more politically convenient, her living fame really mattered. The fact that Powers wasn’t anonymous in her lifetime, writes the MFA curators, only adds to the importance of her work, and her own story. And this should encourage, even compel us, to stand in front of her quilts, her art, and see them, really see them, and never stop. I mean, as if we could.
The exhibition “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories,” which contains, among other exquisite textiles, both the Bible and the Pictorial quilts reunited at last, is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until January 17, 2022, and you can get tickets easily at mfa.org.
Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt, 1895–98. Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliquéd, embroidered, and quilted. Bequest of Maxim Karolik.
College Student Resource Guide
Featuring key works, quotes, and discussion questions drawn from “Fabric of a Nation,” this online thematic resource guide was designed for students and educators to explore the art of quilt making as an instrument of social change, storytelling, and artistic craft.
Additional funding from the Dillon Fund of the Boston Foundation, the David and Roberta Logie Fund for Textile and Fashion Arts, the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Fund for Exhibitions, the Robert and Jane Burke Fund for Exhibitions, the Loring Textile Gallery Exhibition Fund, and the Patricia B. Jacoby Exhibition Fund.