I've broken this visit to the Quilt Study Center into two sections mostly because it grew long, and I've divided it into sections labeled art and craft, not so much because I believe that one is more or less worthy than the other, or even that dividing lines are all that clear, but because it suited my purposes. In this post I am covering the parts of the exhibit that were devoted to pieces that were created to be functional.
Simply put, as much as I love art in and of itself, there is a special place in my heart for those who make things that are beautiful for everyday use. We have little time or even use for such things in modern life, when everything is available to us without much thought and it is time that feels rare. But I sometimes wonder if we've missed something truly important.
There was a small, but lovely exhibit of Miao pieces which included the two collars shown above. These are pieces intended to be worn, and they show signs of wear and use, but the design and workmanship is stunning. I want to say that they are in fact children's collars, but I neglected to take a photo of the descriptive plaque and cannot remember. That seems foreign to us in modern life, where we feel our hands are put to better use than on handwork that will be quickly outgrown, but I'm not sure the results of our labors are any less ephemeral. The act of making shows respect and honor and love, the wearing connects one to the art, to the cycle of life and art combined. Such things remind me that we humans are creative creatures, that we are compelled to make beauty, and that it is in fact the act of living itself, and celebrating the small, the immediate, and the circle of our individual family and community is from whence our well-being and happiness ultimately arises.
It is not really important if something was made for everyday use or for special occasions. What attracts me is the making as well as the using, that it is the act of living itself that is worthy of art. Look at the detail in this Miao women's jacket for example. It is not fast fashion. This is something to be worn and cared for, to be treasured. It is something that is meant to last, not permanently no, but nothing really is permanent, and to be worn with pride.
In some ways, we modern people have lost that. Would any of us spend the time embroidering a jacket, putting in time to perform intricate work such as in the example above? We think of our time as too valuable, and yet do the things we do with our time prove to be more lasting? Do they bring us greater pleasure? I am not trying to denigrate the art quilts, I think they are fabulous. I think human need to create is something essential to our being, that we are all creative, if anything, we do not honor or desire for creativity enough.
But one of the joys of looking at older, or traditional quilts and bed coverings is not only in admiring the skill of the makers, but also in reminding oneself of the joy in making something that was both necessary and beautiful. No one has to make beauty, and yet we do. And our desire to express beauty can take many forms. The bedspread above is not quilted, or embroidered but stenciled. It is no less beautiful, no less useful, and the stenciling is artfully done. Similar stencils are available in Michaels and we might stencil a placemat, a piece of furniture or a wall, and yet this bedspread dates from sometime in the 1820s or 1830s. Would we stencil a bedspread? Are we missing something in not curling up under the warmth of our own handiwork?
Or consider this embroidered blanket, embroidered with wool thread, which the description stated had probably been spun from local wool. Note the date, 1816, making this blanket over 200 years old. The workmanship is beautiful. Can we imagine it today? Such workmanship takes much practice and skill, and not every budding embroiderer has the patience or talent, but can we even imagine sitting down today and embroidering a blanket? What have we lost and what have we gained?
Is this any less art? Someone meticulously cut out motifs, arranged them, and attached them by hand.
And so we still admire and celebrate that which survives, the patience, the skill, the handiwork:
Today these things are the exceptions, the treasures, and most of them are just that. Most of what makes it to a museum is the exceptional, the work of the skilled and talented, but many of these objects also came from a time when most people needed to make what they used, and not everyone was equally talented. The truth is that most quilts were not exceptional. But we tend to forget about the quality of the average. We are blinded by our own exposure, our experience, our knowledge. We forget that we have become critics, and we forget that our vantage point is indeed from a point of exception. But in many ways the average, the everyday, even the fact that individuals and communities made quilts, that the making was itself both a necessity and a bringing together, is forgotten.
I think in some ways, that was the beauty of the Ken Burns quilt exhibit, although we admittedly did not spend enough time there. It is something I regret. I admit that compared to the work in the other exhibits some of these quilts seemed boring, but we were blinded by our own knowledge, our own skills as seamstresses although I for one am no quilter, and the fact that we had just come from the art exhibits. But I also blame this on the curation of the exhibit itself, It could have been so much better. To that end I am showing two photos from the International Quilt Study Center's website illustrating the exhibit. The photo above shows an example that I think worked. The words printed on the wall relate directly to the quilts displayed, and give the viewer some sense of what attracted the collector, but for most of the exhibit this was not the case.
More often we had random words and phrases, yes Burns' words, but disembodied from a conversation and not necessarily relating to the nearby quilts. Often these words, taken out of context, in a sense disembodied, seemed shallow and often patronizing. They seemed to lessen the experience of viewing the exhibit rather than enhancing it. The collection is in fact quite interesting, even though we did comment that the quilts were often boring. But that is not the point, surrounded in a museum of the exceptional in terms of technique and style, a bit more work was required in order to bring the heart of this exhibit to the viewer. I don't think it succeeded.
After returning home I googled Ken Burns and came up with this article in the New York Times. I highly recommend the article. Many of the words used in the exhibit come from this conversation, but here they are warm whereas in the museum they seem cold and detached. There are also photos of quilts not seen in the exhibit, lovely quilts, but their loveliness is not why I mention them. Read Burns descriptions of the quilts, what attracted him to them. This is what was missing from the Burns exhibit, the connection with the collector. In the end I think this is what we all want. We want to see art, yes, but we also want to understand, we also want relationship. We want to know what attracted the collector to the works he collected, what meaning he derives, so that we an then form our own conversations with what we are seeing. This was lacking.
Having read the article, now I'd like to go back and see the exhibit again. Still I think it could have been better done, it could have offered an opportunity for connection with our past and with the idea that everyday creativity is not mundane or even boring. Instead I am left with regret, regret that despite all the beauty, all the exceptional workmanship, we missed something essential, regret that perhaps we did not see the forest through the trees.
The two photos from the Burns exhibit are not my photos but are taken from the website of the International Quilt Study Center.