To celebrate the opening of the exhibition Sewn Together: Two Centuries of Alabama Quilts last month, the Museum invited Jennifer Swope, Assistant Curator in the David and Roberta Logie Department of Textiles and Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to help contextualize this ground-breaking exhibition by tracing the evolution of the art world’s appreciation of quilts as an art form. The Fleischman Lecture she delivered was titled “From Beds to Wall: Quilts as Art.” Swope allowed the quilt pairs to speak for themselves and was careful to mark the significance of the exhibition.
She remarked afterwards, “This is first time that a cultural historical museum has collaborated with an art museum to show quilts together as far as I know. It is also the first time many of the quilts from the Archives have been on display, and that’s exciting. People get to see them because of the collaboration.” Swope greatly values the fresh approach. “The exhibition allows cultural aspects of objects and aesthetic aspects of objects to co-exist on equal footing. It’s a tribute to the fabulous curators that work so well together.” She continued, “It is important to bring new audiences to the material. People who aren’t aware of the compelling nature of quilts find that they like the stories being told in the show. People who tend to approach quilts from a material culture perspective find that they are aesthetically powerful too.”
Reflecting on Quilt Programs
Last Tuesday in the MMFA galleries, curators Margaret Lynne Ausfeld and Ryan Blocker hosted the first of several Short Course programs on Sewn Together. This exhibition is a collaborative venture between the MMFA (Ausfeld) and the Alabama Department of Archives and History (Blocker), featuring “exemplary pairs” of quilts with similar themes, created at different times and places, by hand or by machine, by Alabamians. The quilts selected from the collection of the Archives reflect fine craftsmanship and a traditional nineteenth-century aesthetic while the Museum’s companion quilts are usually more modern, dynamic interpretations of the same patterns or themes. The two curators approached the program yesterday as they approached the exhibition, as an enthusiastic and erudite team.
Museum member Stan Neuenschwander remarked after the Short Course, “The beauty of two museums, one history, one fine arts, coming together is outstanding.” Neuenschwander’s wife, Becky, and Rachael Jones are among those who not only attended the recent exhibition-related programs but who are also practicing quilters. The two spoke of the community aspect of quilting, whether as an avenue for connecting to people in other parts of the country or becoming intimately acquainted with those they quilt with locally. After the gallery talk, Jones spoke of the language of quilt pattern names shared by fellow quilters, such as “Drunkard’s Path” and “Lemoyne Star.” Reflecting on our larger heritage as Alabamians, Jones noted the deep ties to our agrarian past and legacy as cotton growers, and docent Beverly Bennet noted that many of us have ancestors who quilted. Museum member Ellen Mertins pointed out that many of the later quilts in the show are by individual artists and are not meant to be utilitarian. Jones noted she has found inspiration in the exhibition to go outside the box in her work, and the quilters are excited about the state of quilting today.
The Future of Quilting
Exhibition sponsor Laura Luckett pointed out that quilts by Alabamians are also represented in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Swope remarked, “anyone outside of the state who is aware of Alabama quilts is aware of Gee’s Bend. The world is ready for a broader understanding of Alabama quilts, historical and contemporary, which Sewn Together delivers, bringing a broader cultural context. The region is such an artistically rich part of our country.” Additionally, as featured at the Museum last week by Sunshine Huff and Carole King, the Alabama Quilt Book Project stands to greatly expand the scholarship on Alabama quilts.
We do hope Swope will visit this rich part of our country again. She was effusive about the warmth of our Museum, the palpable nature of support for it in the community, the engaging manner in which the Archives addresses history, from pre-history to the present day, without glossing over anything, and the enthusiasm for their collections. She also really loved Jubilee Seafood and meeting exhibition sponsors Laura and Michael Luckett, whose daughter has published a book on quilting. In short, Swope said it was a special visit in honor of a very special exhibition. We look forward to further insights by our patrons as we continue to unravel the hidden and apparent meanings in these objects that were Sewn Together.
Curator of Education
Fig 1.: (left to right) Margaret Lynne Ausfeld, MMFA curator; Jennifer Swope, Assistant Curator in the David and Roberta Logie Department of Textiles and Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Ryan Blocker, ADAH curator
Fig 2.: Ryan Blocker, curator at ADAH