Gavin Ashworth

“Workt by Hand,” including Mary A. Stinson’s crazy quilt, is at the Crocker through Sept. 1.

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Art review: Quilt masterpieces at the Crocker

Published: Friday, May. 30, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Friday, May. 30, 2014 - 12:16 am

“Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts,” a show of approximately 35 quilt masterpieces from the Brooklyn Museum’s decorative arts collection at the Crocker Art Museum, offers a look at 200 years of quilts from America and Europe – and some of these pieces will astound you.

Organized by the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, the traveling show was last seen at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It will be on view at the Crocker through Sept. 1.

Once considered “women’s work,” quilting was elevated to the status of high art in the 20th century, but as installed at the Crocker, the show departs from practices in which quilts were hung on the wall and interpreted as early forms of modern art. Here, a nearly equal number of works are hung on the wall and presented horizontally as if on beds. One is presented on a real bed – an American Eastlake double bed circa 1875-90 from the Crocker’s collection of decorative arts.

As a fertile field of study, quilts straddle the line between feminist and formalist criticism asserting their functionality as well as their strength as abstract art objects. The inclusion of period furniture and numerous books on quilting, both old and new, give context to the quilts on view and offer a rich opportunity for students of quilts and history.

The show begins with a pictorial quilt from 1795, made in England or Ireland, that is rich in anecdotal detail. Animals and humans interact in appliqued passages on the borders of the quilt, which has a folk art quality. Similar in feeling is a pictorial quilt circa 1840, made by a number of quilters, with intricate and intriguing details. One of the squares includes a silhouette of a woman’s profile, a cat, a heart, a star, and the square and compass, a familiar Masonic symbol, indicating that the quilt was probably made by a women’s auxiliary of the organization.

Most of the quilts in the show are made by anonymous quilters, though some bear the names of a single quilter. Elizabeth Wilson was the creator of a medallion quilt, with an American eagle at the center. It is an example of an unusual and difficult applique technique that is rarely seen, the imagery based on a mid-19th century pattern from Baltimore.

Whether acknowledged or not, most of the quilts in the show were probably made by well-to-do women who had the time to do the laborious work and the money to purchase material. Many of the fabrics used would have been expensive, especially the silks and velvets used in crazy quilts. It is also thought that some of the quilts, attributed to white households, may have been worked on by African American slaves.

There is to this day a strong culture of quilt-making among African American women, some of whose work was seen recently at Evolve the Gallery in Oak Park. One of the most-striking quilts in the show was made by Anna Williams, an African American woman who was born and raised near Baton Rouge, La. A lifelong quilter, she was noted for her use of both traditional printed cottons and unusual synthetics and decorated fabrics using sequins. Made in 1995, her elaborate patchwork quilt is a tour de force of the quilter’s art.

There are a couple of Amish quilts in the show, a somber and restrained Bars quilt circa 1890 that is as elegiac and moving as an abstract painting by Mark Rothko or Ad Reinhardt and a flashier Star of Bethlehem quilt with daring color – for Amish makers – including a hot pink. It reminds one of op art, as does an intricate Tumbling Blocks quilt circa 1865-70 made by Victoria Royall Broadhead.

There are a number of involved and elegant crazy quilts in the show, which use rich fabrics and fancy embroidery to luxurious effect. Inspired by a craze for all things Japanese in the last two decades of the 19th century, these often include images such as fans and spider webs.

While most are delightfully crazed, one structured around spirals of patchwork stands out. Mary A. Stinson’s crazy quilt, circa 1880, is rife with gorgeous details – a peacock, sunflowers, thistles, strawberries, pansies and bleeding hearts, to name a few – and elaborate embroidery, including a blooming vine of morning glory buds and blossoms against a black silk border. It will knock your socks off.

During the run of the show, the Crocker will host local quilters who will demonstrate and work with museum visitors, and there will be activities for children. There is also a quilt donor wall to raise money for the Crocker’s quilt collection.

Special programs in conjunction with the show include a patchwork of classic cinematic musicals, from “On the Town” to “Grease,” which will be screened each month of the show’s run in the Crocker courtyard; a concert by the Camellia Symphony highlighting female composers and their role in the history of American music; a symposium by experts in quilting, feminism and folk art examining the experiences of the women featured in the show; and a gallery tour of the exhibition that may be taken either before or after having lunch in the Crocker Cafe.

Read more articles by Victoria Dalkey

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