23 June 2010

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich at the Quilt Museum

Title slide of Prof. Ulrich's presentation.

On June 19, DH and I took in a lecture presented by Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. She presented her work-in-progress for her next book, an in-depth study of an album quilt made in 1857 by women in a Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) community in Utah territory. This object could easily be dismissed as just another another example of the decorative output of women with no other artistic outlet. However, Prof. Ulrich finds linkages between this object and many aspects of American history, including issues of community self-governance, religion and faith, as well as marriage and sexuality.

The women who contributed to the quilt are profiled in Carol Holindrake Nielson's book The Salt Lake City 14th Ward Album Quilt, 1857, which provided Ulrich with invaluable background material for her own research.

The lecture was excellent and I can't wait to read the finished book. I first became aware of Ulrich when she spoke at my town library shortly after the publication of her book
The Age of Homespun, a seminal work in the field of object-centered cultural history. Through impeccable research, Ulrich largely debunks the early American mythology established by such sentimentalists as Wallace Nutting.

Prof. Ulrich speaking.

Prof. Ulrich's book.

This scholarly but engaging presentation is just the kind of activity I look for from the quilt museum. The lecture tied in nicely to the museum's current exhibit, Women's Writes: Signature Quilts and Stories, which presents quilts, often community projects and fund-raisers, featuring the names of contributors inscribed in the quilt blocks. While it's long been assumed that "anonymous was a woman," in these quilts women were encouraged to record their autograph for posterity. Having one's name so visibly recorded, and, indeed celebrated, must have been empowering.

Quilt with inked signatures and partially embroidered signatures.

Redwork signatures.

Mariner's compass with names, barely visible, in the compass center.

This show, which ends July 11, is very well conceived and curated - kudos to the museum!

12 June 2010

Recommended reading

Indian Textiles in the East, by John Guy.

I recently finished two enjoyable books, Indian Textiles in the East: From Southeast Asia to Japan and Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.

The Indian Textiles book is a profusely-illustrated scholarly cultural study. Before the European East India Companies muscled their way into Asian commerce, colorfast Indian cloth was traded in a regional exchange system, with merchants also sailing from Muslim Arabia. This engagingly-written book documents this trade of textiles for spices from the time period, roughly, of 1600 - 1858. Maps, primary documents, contemporary images and, of course, color photos of stunning historic textiles all serve to explain the fabrication and origin of regional textiles, how the printed cottons and silk ikats were made, and the degree to which products were adapted to the requirements of each market, whether in Malaysia, Sulawesi (Indonesia) or Japan.

The author, John Guy, was formerly Senior Curator of the Asian Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum and is now Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art in the Department of Asian Art at the Met.

Process of creating a mordanted cotton print.

Illustration from the book of a Palampore
(large bedcover or curtain panel).

An engaging cultural study by Amanda Vickery.

The other book is Behind Closed Doors: at Home in Georgian England, by British history professor Amanda Vickery. The cover image and book title suggests a focus on salacious behavior or outlandish dress; there is neither, although one discussion of an aristocratic divorce begins to read like a People magazine of the 18th century. A good review can be accessed at this link:


For me, the most important chapter was entitled "What Women Made," a discussion of "amateur" crafting and female accomplishments. Art history hasn't known what to do with regard to the production of embroidery, cut paper work, shellwork, decorated boxes, fire screens, etc. Is it art, occupational therapy or make-work? Were women just decorating their own cages? As Ms. Vickery states, "The domestic context of female decorative work has guaranteed its low prestige. A founding legend of women's history narrates the withdrawal of middling and privileged women from productive work and relegation to a separate sphere of home as a consequence of industrial capitalism." Somehow, objects made in one's "leisure time", i.e. by women not in the work force, became ripe for parody and disparagement.

Although the two books feature very different subject matter, what is clear in the Guy book is that in historical Asian cultures textiles represented status and wealth in the way that precious metal jewelry and objects function in other societies. Traditional Asian culture, as I understand it, did not establish a dichotomy between "high" and "low" arts; textiles were not relegated to "decorative art" status, as opposed to "fine art" status. Indeed, textile designs even influenced architectural detail and decoration.

Guy's research and analysis has reinforced the status of these textiles as art. Those of us who value needle arts can only hope that more research on objects made by women in past centuries will undoubtedly lead to a reassessment of these products as well.

03 June 2010

Hanging the 2010 QC quilt show

Why is this brave woman up a ladder?

When my youngest child graduated from high school, my family did not quite grasp why I was so estatically happy. Was I really surprised that my youngest, always academically capable, received his high school diploma? What they didn't understand is that the event signaled another transition - an end, or so I thought, to what seemed like a lifetime of volunteering. In America, civil society cannot be supported, evidently, without hours of unpaid labor, in the public school system, at museums, senior centers, etc. Is it like this in other countries? Are French mamans creating les cupcakes for le bake sale? Are Australians mums spending hours decorating gyms so that they resemble an unholy union between a Caribbean resort and Madison Square Garden? I was so happy to be leaving that life behind, or so I thought.

Alas, I celebrated too soon, as the volunteer life continues, and this morning found me assisting with the installation of my quilt guild's annual quilt show extravaganza.

Hanging the beautiful raffle quilt.

After a year of planning, things got off to an early start at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, in Watertown. First, members exhibiting quilt(s) drop them off between 8 and 9.

Are we organized or what?

A patient volunteer checking in a quilt.

Each exhibitor receives a blue index card for each quilt, and this must be presented after the show ends, to retrieve the quilt. The artist can assign pick-up to someone else, but that person must present the all-important blue card. This all ensures that quilts are matched with owners - if you'd spent 100 or more hours on a work of art, you'd want it back too.

Rolls of quilts are delivered to their assigned areas,
and kept clean on sheets.

The Arsenal Center is a tricky space to hang, in curator parlance, as it's not a series of exhibition rooms, but a collection of spaces enveloping a large performance theater. So, there are quilts displayed in the Black Box, the window-less area under the raked seating and stage, as well as quilts on the lobby landings, quilts in the entrance lobby, and quilts in the theater itself and even on the stage.

Each quilt has a rod pocket sewn on the back and each quilter provides a metal or wood rod to go through the pocket. The ends of the rods are hung using monofilament fishing line.

Some of the tools of the trade.

There are also few of the usual display systems or supports - no picture rails, etc. Quilters are very resourceful, and we use clips attached to the ceiling structure, as well as special hooks for suspended ceiling systems. The Arts Center staff helps and we all pitch in to trouble-shoot.

Quilts arranged on the floor,
in front of the wall on which they will be hung.

Hey presto! Quilts on the wall.

My team of four spent a good deal of time arranging the quilts assigned to our area, to make pleasing compositions of quilts that would complement each other, and not clash on the wall. We moved the quilts around on floor sheets and managed to reach a consensus.

One volunteer, teetering on a stool,
suspends the quilt while another checks placement.

My assigned area was the classroom space, which featured the smaller quilts. Once the room was organized overall, I worked with Nancy, the intrepid woman in the first image in this post, and hung over a dozen quilts. Total time: about three hours. Nancy was a pleasure to work with - a winning combination of good sense, a good eye, no pretensions, but plenty of patience.

Guild members ready the boutique.

Our guild show does not feature vendors, but we do have a great boutique. Quilters are often experts in other craft areas, and the boutique features knitwear, jewelry and other items reflecting a professional level of design and execution.

The stage, with quilts.

The Black Box. That's my quilt, at the left end of the row.

More about this year's show can be found at: http://www.quiltersconnection.org/quiltshow.html
As you can see, it's a lot of effort, but even this reluctant volunteer considers it time well spent.