Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Dream Come True

Last night, one of my dreams - a dream I thought was an impossible dream - came true.

Back in 2002, I was visiting my godmother, Jackie Schneider, in New York City. She knew I liked quilts, so she told me to go to the Whitney Museum of American Art, where there was supposed to be a great quilt show. I was staying at the Four Seasons, and it was close enough to the Whitney, so I went over and checked it out. I had no idea what I was about to see. It was The Quilts of Gee's Bend.

The only other quilt show I'd seen before was an exhibit called Nineteenth-Century Applique Quilts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1989. That show featured jaw-dropping masterpieces from the Museum's permanent collection, including the famous Charlotte Gillingham Album Quilt from 1842-1843. Basically, that's the type of quilt I expected to see on display at a museum.

Boy, was I in for a surprise!

When I walked into the Whitney, the first quilt I saw was Lutisha Pettway's "Bars" denim work clothes quilt, circa 1950. For a split second, I thought, "What is this?" followed immediately by "Oh my GOD! This is AMAZING!" It was a revelation. It changed everything. Even though the quilts had very humble origins, the vision was crystal clear. I was standing in the presence of very sophisticated works of art. The visual sophistication wasn't just academic, though. These were the most big-hearted quilts I'd ever seen.

Bible Story by Polly Raymond of Gee's Bend, Alabama.
This week, noted author Kyra Hicks, a Facebook friend who I hope to meet in person one day, was selling some quilts on eBay. Kyra has written several wonderful books about African American quilts and quilt makers. One of the quilts she was selling was a Polly Raymond Bible Story quilt from Gee's Bend, and I was the lucky winner of the auction. Actually, lucky doesn't even begin to describe it.

Polly Raymond is one of seven daughters in a family of the ten children. Her mother is the irrepressible Lucy Mingo, who once participated in the Selma to Montgomery March for Civil Rights, aided by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking about the event, Mingo declared, "No white man gonna tell me not to march. Only make me march harder."

I love Lucy! And I haven't even met her yet.

Recently, I was telling Julie Silber of The Quilt Complex that I would be speaking next summer at the Quilter's Affair in Sisters, Oregon, where the quilt makers from Gee's Bend will also appear as featured guests. Very big deal for me! I saw Ricky Tims perform there last summer, and I thought, "One day, I want to be up on that stage." Julie told me if there's one person I need to meet, it is Lucy Mingo. If she's there, I will have her daughter's quilt with me, and I'll be waiting with open arms.

My godmother from New York, "Aunt Jackie" as I called her, passed away a few years ago. She was always one of my favorite people, but I don't think she ever realized how much her suggestion to go to the Whitney changed me. I wish I could just pick up the phone and call her.

Somehow, I feel like she was with me today.


  1. The way the Gee Bend women made these quilts to express their artistic talents still amazes me.
    Hooray for Aunt Jackie.

  2. I like that expression - big-hearted quilts. I can't think of a better way to describe them.

  3. Isn't it wonderful when you have the back-story to a quilt! I'm an so happy that you and that quilt found one another!

    Aunt Jackie sounds like a great godmother...I'm sure she has a smile on...

  4. Ah, what a story, Bill!! And a great quilt. I'm sure Polly will love to know her quilt is in a great home and will be appreciated.

  5. Yep, Julie is right: Lucy is who you want to meet. She is the greatest. Her daughter's quilt is beautiful. Congrats on getting it--

  6. To celebrate Kyra Hicks' amazing act of philanthropy, I have decided to give back in my own way. One of my quilts, a mid-late 1800's "Tobacco Leaves" quilt is almost identical to one held by the International Quilt Study Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. I believe they could have been made in the same place by the same family. The quilt was a gift from my mother several years ago. I talked it over with Mom, and she gave me her blessing to donate it to IQSC. As soon as I can get it appraised, off it will go. Will blog about it in the near future.

  7. Mary Bywater CrossOctober 27, 2010 at 1:56 PM

    Bill, Your quilt world does just seem to expand and expand and expand! The connections you make are amazing and rewarding. Thanks for sharing, Mary

  8. The day I got that book in my hands and saw the quilts in person, my quilting life changed forever! I have had the fortune to meet some of the women.. Some of the most memorable experiences of my life!
    Enjoy your time in Sisters next summer.
    Congratulations on the quilt! It is beautiful!

  9. Every once in a while, something comes along that challenges everything you know and expands your world. I have a feeling that meeting the quilt makers of Gee's Bend will be one of those great defining moments. Can't say it enough - I'm a really lucky guy!