FREEDOM QUILT, Jessie B Telefair (1913-1986), cotton with muslin backing and pencil inscription, 74 x 68 inches, American Folk Art Museum, NY

Many Americans assume that early colonial quilts were made by pioneer women in log cabins, stitching together bits and pieces of scrap material and batting them for warmth.  A quaint pastime when they were not spinning, sewing, preserving food, cooking, cleaning or caring for their ever growing families.

In reality quilting was a form of decorative needle work and fine stitching, often passed down from mother to daughter. For many it was a luxury to have the time and means to purchase fine materials and stitch them into intricate patterns. Quilts were made for bedding, commemoration and decoration but women also used them as methods of fund raising, dispatching information and forms of protest and political statements.

Grover Cleveland Quilt, 1884-1890, cotton with cotton applique’ and embroidery, 61 x 75 inches, Courtesy american Folk Art Museum, New York

The Boca Raton Museum of Art’s exhibition “Politics NOT as Usual: Quilts with Something to Say”  is a collection of quilts made by politically minded women that used their feminine skills to call for human justice and equality.

Many of the quilts on view were made by colonial women expressing the pride, concerns and frustrations associated with the turbulent times in which they were living.  Quilts were often made in hopes of raising money to support troops on either side of the Civil War.

Women expressed their democratic sympathies by incorporating ribbons from political rallies to promote  their favorite candidates and to call for awareness of abolitionist and suffragist causes.  “The Cleveland-Hendricks Crazy Quilt” incorporates both political and social issues as the unidentified quilter included images of Democratic political figures and their parties signature rooster as well as Japanese fans in the corners, demonstrating  the influence of Japanese decorative arts in the late 1800’s.

Cleveland-Hendricks Crazy Quilt
Artist unidentified, 1885-1890, Lithographed silk ribbons, silk and wool with cotton fringe and silk metallic embroidery, Collection of the American folk Art Museum

Examples of more recent quilts  are also on display. Quilting is still a formative method for the freedom of expression and speech that we enjoy in this country today.   “Hudson River Quilt” (1969-72) was conceived by Irene Preston Miller to draw attention to the beauty of the Hudson River and to win support for the protection of it’s waters and landmarks.

Hudson River Quilt, Irene Preston Miller (1917–2007), 1969–1972, cotton, wool, and blends with cotton embroidery, 95 1/4 x 80 inches, American Folk Art Museum

“Glorious Lady Freedom” (1985-86) created by Monica Calvert was the first place winner in the inaugural Great American Quilt Contest in 1986. This contest was held in New York City, in conjunction with the Centennial Celebration of the Statue of Liberty.  Calvert depicted the stars and stripes woven into the mountains and plains of this great country with the statue of liberty and a New york skyline in the foreground.  The California artist said, after her first visit to the Statue of Liberty, “I am not a flag-waver, but I discovered I am a serious American”

Glorious Lady Freedom Quilt, Moneca Calvert, 1985–1986, cotton, cotton blends, and linen with cotton embroidery, 72 x 71 ½ inches. Collection of the American Folk Art Museum, New York, The Scotchgard® Collection of Contemporary Quilts

Conspicuously evident in in the lower right corner of Calvert’s quilt are the Twin Towers, standing tall in the New York Skyline.  A sad reminder of the quilt yet to come.

On display in the next room for the first time outside of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, is the  9/11 National Tribute Quilt. This quilt incorporates blocks from five hundred people in fifty states as well as blocks from Canada, Spain, Denmark and Australia.

The National Tribute quilt is made up of three thousand four hundred and sixty six blocks, stitched together to create a six panel quilt stretching thirty feet long and eight feet high.  Each block has been hand stitched to commemorate and acknowledge the thousands of lives lost on September 11, 2001.

STEEL QUILTERS, National Tribute Quilt, 2002, Cotton and mixed media, 8 x 30 ft. American Folk Art Museum, gift of the artists.

The New York skyline spans across 4 panels of the quilt and is bound on either side by panels representing the four flights on the left and the Pentagon to the right.  The Twin Towers are at the center of the quilt jutting magnificently high into the clear blue sky.  The joyful confetti of colorful tiles inspires memories of happier times.  Yet that feeling begins to fade as one examines each of the blocks, reading the names,ages and accompanying personal symbols associated with the thousands of individuals that perished that day.

MAP QUILT, artist unidentified, 1886, Silks and cotton with silk embroidery and cotton sateen backing, 78 3/4 x 82 1/4 in., Courtesy American Folk Art Museum

“Politics NOT as Usual: Quilts with Something to Say” is a timely exhibition with our Presidential elections just around the corner.  As we watch the political brinksmanship and contentious campaigns coming from both sides of the aisle, we must remind ourselves that this country is like a patchwork quilt.  It’s diverse population is made up of individual blocks expressing various concerns but in the end we are all sewn together by freedom of speech and security in the knowledge that we are living in a free and democratic society.

Politics NOT as Usual: Quilts with Something to Say September 11, 2012 – January 13, 2013 | Boca Raton Museum of Art

September 2012 Jami Nix Rahn ©