Two centuries of women’s work and the myriad ways that’s been historically valued are on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts exhibition, “Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts.”
The term “Workt by hand” is common in quilting parlance and refers to the distinctive skill and personal connection a craftsperson brings to each object. Through patterns and styles — including “barn raising,” “log cabin,” “double wedding band” and “crazy quilts” — the 35 works from the 18th to 20th centuries act as a stand-in for larger questions of art vs. craft, authorship and anonymity, and the relative weight of women's labor and influence during specific cultural moments.
The five-part exhibition comes from the Brooklyn Museum’s decorative arts collection. It is divided into overarching themes, not wholly chronological, that provide a feminist framework and context to the understanding and resonance of quilts dating back to America's earliest times.
An intricate white, whole cloth quilt from 1810, with added stuffing to enhance its sculptural qualities is prominently displayed in “Myth, Nostalgia, the Colonial Revival and American Centennial.” The section focuses on how quilts became part of the revisionism and reimagining of America’s founding ethos around the time of its centennial. The fact that the quilter’s name is known, and that it is such a detailed piece belies the focus of quilts as the province of humble, rough-hewn beginnings. “The image was of pioneering women stitching together scraps to stay warm,” says Virginia Treanor, associate curator and liaison curator for the exhibition. But“these were luxury items. You had to have the money for fabric and the time to complete it.”
The exhibition raises questions about how we label things and “why we value what we value in our society,” says Treanor. “Why are paintings more valued than quilts?” Is it because quilts also have utility? Do quilts become more valuable when they are hung? And did quilts become synonymous with a wholesome women’s activity because quilting was largely confined to indoors, away from the public sphere?
An 1840 “pictorial quilt” features blocks representing each contributor, and although there are some initials, “why don’t we know the women who made this?” Treanor says. “We like the image of the genius loner artist and the idea that something is collaborative gives it less value.”
“Folk Art and American Identity” tells us that the notion of “honest American culture” was idealized around World War I, as a counter to perceptions of European decadence, including the women who were presumably content to have their quilts shown at local fairs instead of art galleries. During the Great Depression, pieced quilts of old clothes and feedbags built on the false stories of pioneers stitching their scraps, and became part of a sustaining myth of historical linkages. “Depression-era quilts became symbols of perseverance from a supposedly more authentic time,” according to the exhibition wall text.
Exhibition photos include ones of quilters in what became the nationally famed Gee’s Bend, Ala., quilting collective.
Advances in manufacturing and growing international trade made a wider array of fabrics available to quilters and the results included “Star of Bethlehem” quilts featured in the exhibition.
“That ’70s Moment,” showcases quilts as they broke through the art/craft divide to be featured at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971 as the historical antecedents to the modern abstract art typically painted by men, noted for formal qualities of geometry and composition. Feminists then sought to and reconnect the quilts to their origins, traditions and creators by mounting exhibitions that gave them their own context and voice. There are numerous catalogues from those exhibitions.
“Consuming and Collecting Quilts” highlights periods of heightened interest in quilts and explosions of quilt popularity, diversity and prevalence in the popular culture. Quilts of various colors and lushness, philosophical origins, whimsy and artistic bents all populate the visually generous, engaging exhibition.
“Obviously people who quilt and who love quilts,” will be drawn to the exhibition, says Treanor, but my hope is that even people who are “not necessarily into quilts will find the social history intriguing, and will prompt discussion.”
at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, through April 27, 2014. Call 202-783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.