Sunday, September 3, 2017

quilts deserve to be called masterpieces

The Tilton Family Quilt, c. 1840, Burlington County, New Jersey
"Masterpiece" is a word I sometimes use when speaking about the quilts in my collection. The first person I remember saying a quilt was a masterpiece was Shelly Zegart. Her book, "American Quilt Collections: Antique Quilt Masterpieces" was the first quilt book I ever saw.

I love how Shelly talks about quilts the way others might discuss paintings or sculptures, the objects canonized by art history tomes. Back in 1984, when I entered Rhode Island School of Design as a freshman, we were required to take art history as one of the five courses in the Freshman Foundation. The other courses were drawing, two-dimensional design, three-dimensional design and English composition and literature.

my first antique quilt: unknown maker, Kentucky, c. 1850
By 1989, the year I met Shelly in New York and bought my first quilt from her, I fully understood what a masterpiece was. Although I never heard the term used to describe a quilt, I knew exactly what she meant. Along with this new-to-me concept came a sad realization. Quilts were not part of the conversation in art history curriculum.

c. 1800 quilt from Rhode Island
Wouldn't it be marvelous to attend a top school such as Rhode Island School of Design and have quilts, such as this early star quilt from Rhode Island be included in the conversation about the history of art?

A masterpiece is a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship. In some cases it is also representative of an artist's or craftsperson's best work. The latter definition could be problematic with quilts made by unknown makers, but when you see a lot of quilts the masterpieces tend to jump out.

an 1840s masterpiece from New England
For me, a masterpiece can also be an outstanding example of originality or creativity, even if it does not represent a high level of skill or refined workmanship. I love quilts that are one-of-a-kind originals, regardless of the level of skill involved.

one-of-a-kind original: unknown maker, New York, c. 1920
Perfection may have been the goal. It was far from the end-result a lot of the time, but the flaws always revealed the people behind the work. Quilts were handmade objects, and if they involved machines, you could still see the hand of the persons operating the machines.

another one-of-a-kind original: unknown maker, Ohio, c. 1930
On the other side of the coin, a masterpiece can also be made from a known or published pattern, such as the Giant Dahlia Quilt, a Hubert ver Mehren design. The maker of the quilt in my collection is unknown, and perhaps there was more than one maker.

Giant Dahlia Quilt, c. 1930
It was no small feat to make this quilt. The level of workmanship is clear, and the maker(s) followed the rules, creating exactly what the pattern specified, all the way down to the quilting design. If ver Mehren had made one of these quilts rather than simply drafting the design, his Giant Dahlia Quilt would look exactly like this one.

a masterpiece quilt in poor condition
We often think of masterpieces as well-preserved objects, but that is not always the case. Many years ago, when I found a pieced quilt of the "New York Beauty" motif and it had two large chunks missing, I realized it was still a masterpiece. It was simply a masterpiece quilt in poor condition.

Owls, unknown maker, Ohio, c. 1975
Quilts deserve to be called masterpieces. Quilts deserve to be included in art history curriculum and every major museum. The presence of quilts would aptly address the sharp, patriarchal vantage points in those arenas. Quiltmaking tradition represents a long, unbroken thread of predominately women's creative expression. Referring to quilts as masterpieces is a good place to start.