Friday, October 15, 2010

Quilts for an Exhibit

Today, I hit the road and go to Philomath, Oregon, home of the Benton County Historical Museum. The museum hosts a big quilt show every other year as part of Quilt County, a county-wide display of quilts. In 2011, The Benton County Museum will host a show of my New York Beauty quilts, and the space can accommodate about 18 full sized quilts.

Since my last visit to the museum, this group of quilts has grown to include 26 examples. I have 25 of them, the other I won on eBay just this week. The show will be a unique glimpse at quilt history as seen in variations on one pattern, known primarily as New York Beauty. 

Funny story about how the show came to be. I was an unlikely looking member of the Columbia Willamette Quilt Study Group when the group visited the museum in March. We were there to view quilts from the Susan Cockrell Collection, an educational collection conceived by an east coast collector who, philanthropically, wanted to spread culture throughout the west. 

I was one of the last people to arrive, and was wearing my usual jeans and a vintage looking Ford T-shirt, probably wearing flip-flops. At the door, we were greeted by a very attractive lady who naturally asked me if I was part of the group. I get that all the time. I'm usually the only guy in the group, I'm 6'4" 225 lbs., and I'm usually dressed waaaayy down. Except for my watch. But that's another story.

We laughed, and I learned her name - Irene Zenev - Executive Director of the museum. Who was I, and why was I there, I'm sure she wondered. 

Early American Union Quilt, 1796-1895. Read more about this quilt.

During the viewing of the Cockrell Collection, I'd been out of my seat, bouncing back and forth between the two tables. Gushing with semi-scholarly observations, I was tickled pink by the museum's appreciation of the quilts, even though they were not all in the best condition. Among those, the Early American Union Quilt was my favorite, hands down. The museum's position was the same as my own. These quilts must be preserved.

By the end of the day someone must have mentioned something to Irene about me having a collection of quilts. I guess they said good things. Irene pulled me aside. She wanted to know - and it was OK if I said no - but she wanted to know if I would be willing to show my quilts at the museum in 2011. I was happy, and said yes with no hesitation. 

A few months later, I visited the museum with 20 quilts from my collection. I met with Irene, Mary Gallagher, Liz Hoffman, and Mark Tolonen. We looked at all types of quilts, including some New York Beauties, and we all agreed it would be fantastic to have a show of all the New York Beauties. They've never been exhibited as a group.

My idea for the show is to take viewers on a journey through time. They will see 150 years of quilt history in a pattern, but they will also see an important dichotomy among the group. 

Condition varies greatly throughout my collection. Some quilts are in such pristine condition, you can see the pencil marks. Others are so tattered, it will be difficult to decide where to sew the hanging sleeves. I maintain a group called "Rescue Quilts" - quilts that display qualities of a masterpiece but are in poor condition. There are several New York Beauties among the rescue quilts.

So I'm bringing a small stack of quilts with me today, and will look forward to planning out my first show. I've got a lot of little questions. What information do they need? Who will make the tags? Do the quilts need sleeves for hanging? Before the show is mounted, will I be able to bring some of the quilts over to Sisters for my evening lecture during the Quilter's Affair? It's new territory for all of us. I've never had a show, and they've never had a show of a private collection maintained outside the museum.

Looks like a nice day for a drive!


  1. Oh Lordie Bill-I love, love, love the off-kilter, unevenly faded one with the mint green borders! I would fight you tooth-and-nail for that one if we both saw it....lucky it already has an owner and will be well taken care of. So, the museum better get on the stick and print a color catalogue of this me and all the other antique quilts nutz can buy one!

  2. Hi Pepper,

    I'm just getting ready to hop in the shower and then hit the road. The quilt you pointed out is a very interesting one. It is actually a time span quilt. I think the original must have been made in the mid 19th century, 1850-1865 range I think. All the green was added later as a reworking of the quilt. I am not sure exactly what the original was or what the reworker did, but it turned out to be art in its own wonky way.

    Catalog is one of the things I plan to ask about, and if we did one, it would of course be in color! :)

  3. I would love to see your exhibition - but count me in for the catalogue if you do one!

    The more of these I see, the more I want to make one, but I will never make up my mind if you keep acquiring more:)

  4. Beautiful collection!
    I wish I could see these quilts in person. I love the last one! I wonder if it was made that way or was restored after the edges were worn out.

  5. Thank you, Bill, for giving us a sneak preview today in Philomath! The Moreland Gallery will become a 40'x60' kaleidoscope during Quilt County 2011.

    You have so many great stories about each quilt and the evolution of the patterns! The exhibition will be both visually dazzling and a fun history lesson. Thanks again. - Mark

  6. Alice - you got it!

    Sujata - that quilt is a timespan quilt. Originally made some time between 1850 and 1865, it was reworked into a whole new quilt some time around the depression era. It looks nothing like what it did originally, I'm sure, but through its evolution it became a whole new thing. I call it art.

    Mark - pleasure to see you, Irene, Mary, and Liz today. The museum is a wonderful place to show quilts, and I'm very honored by the opportunity. It's going to be great!

  7. Had to chuckle, Bill. Wouldnʻt you know it -- Quilters in a public brawl over the fantasy rights of That off-kiltered Beauty with the nasty green border! Iʻm in! How about postcards so we can spread the joy.

    Love from Nyima

  8. LOL. That green one sure is a dilly!! I asked the museum staff if the quilt was "too funky" for the museum, but they were very open to it. I like their attitude about quilts in not-so-good condition. Personally, I'm always intrigued by things I don't fully understand, and I don't think I'll ever fully understand that quilt. Crazy things happened to it!