Just How I Picture It in My Mind

Contemporary African American Quilts

On my way up north (that’s what Michigander call driving more or less northbound to spend a weekend or vacation at one of the Great Lakes), I had a stopover at Flint Institute of Arts to visit the exhibition „Just How I Picture It in My Mind“ of African-American quilts. What a zinger!

In my short life as a quilter I learned some crucial rules by heart:  Be exact! Be precise! Keep the balance! Follow all rules! Correct choice of fabrics – everything has to match in impeccable harmony, or contrast, or whatever! No perfect points? No mercy: Rip it or the patchwork police will show up!

So, after taking this in, I ran into my very first quilt exhibition and – boy, was I stunned! Nothing at these patient museum walls was comparable to what I was expecting. Pattern? As a faint idea, maybe. Seams? Zickack, adventurously crooked and wonky. Choice of fabric? Not following any known rule except poverty and necessity of using up materials that were available; used jeans and working pants. Old neckties. Rugged stuff. These makers didn’t obey any of the rules I thought of as being holy. What now?

You know what? After the first shock I fell in love with it. I was so unbelievably impressed: What the heck are these women thinking? How DARE they? Neglecting each and every rule I’ve learned so far? How do they dare do this just the way they did? They left me speechless (which is a rare moment, after all). Maybe some “design decision” had to be done just because there was no more grey fabric and the quilter had to go on with some blue stuff, that is, economical reasons set limitations to the designing. But I think there’s more beyond it. If you are on a budget in fabrics, you can do some calculating to stay balanced and correct. Amish women couldn’t draw on unlimited fabric resources, neither the Chinese or the  Korean quilter. Apparently, it’s not granted to have an endless supply of fabric, though.

These women didn’t do the math. They didn’t calculate the heck out of them to make it perfect, no, they did not! And I am exhilarated by this boldness, this cheeky naturalness, with which these quilters made it their own way, how they didn’t give a … for conventions, expectations, rules. Up left, some pink piece. Just there, no counterpart somewhere else to create balance, to ease the viewer’s eye with some evenness. Nope, pink just up left. Period.

That’s cool. These quilts meant emancipation and self-determination to me. They speak the language of someone who makes his (her!) decisions, who follows her own feelings and wishes. The result doesn’t match the common ideal of beauty, nor the traditional block-pattern, it doesn’t meet the expectations of Eurasian-American men. And women. Men, because they may not think in such dimensions at all, like: “Is this crooked? Can’t she sew straight seams? This doesn’t look nice.”

And, honestly, I allege women, who hate these kind of quilts too much, a fair amount of envy. I assume that they are envious of the courage and self-confidence to disregard conventions – this doesn’t exclude me.

You’ll find this pretty often in museums displaying modern art: when people in front of some attract paintings comment like: “Oh, I could have done that. Even my 4 year-old could’ve!” Sure you could. But you didn’t! And even less you didn’t do it as the very first one who did. That’s what makes the difference. To understand art, especially modern art, you need to relate it to time and circumstances. If black and white is state of the art, colors are an imposition. Not everyone was delighted by Albrecht Dürer’s lush paintings at his time. When everyone is trying to capture the scene as naturalistic as possible, an abstract is an affront.

For someone who is caught in a lifelong fight of matching those freaking points, for someone who is desperately trying to be all things to all men (to generalize quite a bit), seeing this breaking out from the loop and all demands is pretty frustrating.

Btw, this doesn’t mean that I don’t like traditional or accurate quilts. Not at all! I love them, they fascinate me, I can’t stop admiring them, letting my eyes take a walk through their perfection and  beauty. Amazing. I wish I could make them. But maybe I mentioned earlier that I have a severe, mood-threatening  allergy against being forced to tie myself down to something without need? Probably.

African-American women showed us how, we may follow: IMPROVISATION! And Sherri Lynn Wood makes great art and teaches workshops! Read about here! 

I show some pictures I took in the exhibition, not commenting them. The rights don’t belong to me, of course, but to the artists, the museum, exhibtion, to idontknow! Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff made a wonderful catalog for the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts showing and explaining the exhibition.

Catalogue of Exhibitions

OK, the pictures:

Lone Star, attributed to Mary Duncan, ca. 1950

Log Cabin (Pig Pen Variation), Catherine Somerville, ca. 1950-1960 made from worn working clothes

Detail of Odell Valentines Lone Star, ca. 1985

Everybody Quilt by Mary Lucas, ca. 1975-1980

Nora’s Necktie Flower Garden by Nora Ezell, 1994

Roman Stripes Britchy Quilt by Lureca Outland, ca. 1989

The Lord is My Shuper by Sarah Mary Taylor, ca. 1989

Me Maske I by Yvonne Wells, 1993

The Great American Pastime: Homage to Jackie Robinson I by Yvonne Wells, 1997

Helen Keller by Yvonne Wells, 2006

Elvis by Yvonne Wells, 1991

Rosa Parks I by Yvonne Wells, 2005

Detail: THE Bus

Looking at the pictures I realized how much I would like to write way more about this topic. I’ve been in Flint when the closing event took place, so I could listen to the curator’s fascinating explanations. And there was a film shown that made me cry. And so much more. This should be continued…

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