As a museum (and quilt museum) professional, I have a major chip on my shoulder formed by years of friends and acquaintances dismissing what I do as not a “real job”. Tell people you work at a quilt museum and they tilt their head a little and say something like, “(pause…) Well....isn’t that niiiiice! You must lovooooove it!” They act like it’s just a big ‘ol quaint, cozy sewing bee. Let me tell you something – there is nothing cozy about it. We have layoffs, budgets, deadlines, evaluations and performance goals. We are dealing with decreasing revenues and increasing costs – AND we have to deal with the general public e-v-e-r-y day. Believe me, it’s a real freakin’ job.
I promised a review of this program and here it is. I really did not know what to expect when I popped a copy of Why Quilts Matter: History, Art and Politics into my DVD player. There are some quilts in the series from the collection of the New England Quilt Museum (where I have my “pretend job”) so we received an advance copy. I was so afraid it was going to be all Sunbonnet Sue and ditsy prints and old grannies with their white hair in a severe bun at the back of their neck – or go on to reinforce other negative stereotypes about quilters.
BOY WAS I WRONG.
I was positively thrilled at how wrong I was. Shelly Zegart has taken the quilting bull by the horns and put it all out there – the good, the bad, and the dicey politics. There are nine programs in this series, each featuring good scholarship and interviews with experts. These are interspersed with photographs, images of many beautiful quilts and some good b-roll of exhibitions and colorful locations. I downloaded the nine episode guides to my iPad so I could follow along with the narration. When I saw a particularly beautiful quilt all I had to do was look down and see the name, maker, location, etc. Nice touch.
The best pat? Oh, how I bonded. I bonded with the Gee’s Bend quilter who said, “When I finish the top I love it, and then when I take it out later to quilt….I get another breath of it.” I nodded knowingly when Shelly Zegart talked about how quilting is often dismissed as “just” the work of women or looked upon as a domestic chore – not an accomplishment or an art or craft. I stood up and cheered when Shelly took on The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue, threw down about the MYTH of the Underground Railroad Quilts, and called out THE QUILT POLICE on their marginalizing hostility. I felt proud to be a quilter, I felt my peeps were finally getting some respect.
As a museum professional I especially enjoyed Episode 6: How Quilts Have Been Viewed and Collected. There was a wonderful discussion of how quilts are appraised and evaluated (just because they are old doesn’t mean they are priceless, people) and what makes them historically important. It was so gratifying to see it put out there for all the world to see and learn what epic changes and the rise of authoritative scholarship that has come about in the past decades. The existence of The Quilt Index is one shining example of the tremendous knowledge base that has been created. The database of over 50,000 quilts, essays, lesson plans, and images has become the preeminent starting point for quilt research and exhibit planning. Let’s not forget the mothership – The International Quilt Study Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. I guarantee that if you visit their website and play with the Quilt Explorer you will look up 2 hours later and say, “WHAT? WHAT TIME IS IT?” There are numerous organizations that promote quilt scholarship and research. The American Quilt Study Group is one of the most preeminent of them, and I am proud to note they are also based in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Fair Disclosure: I was born and raised in Nebraska. When I hear people disparage the fact that the IQSC is located in Nebraska I get a little sideways. I grit my teeth and nicely point out what a great idea it was to locate it in the CENTER of the country where everyone has equidistant access. I then take the opportunity to educate them about the outstanding textile studies programs in place there long before the IQSC was founded.
Let’s wrap it up: this program is well worth the purchase price. Yes, you’ll see it on PBS but you won’t see it all because you’ll miss an episode and you won’t be able to realize the full impact of this production. It will move you, inspire you and enable you to carry your head a little higher. If we truly want to promote and continue the work, art and craft of quilting we need to make it a priority. We need to support this kind of scholarship and PR with our blogs, our actions, and our money. Buy it from the Kentucky Quilt Project. Buy it from your locally owned quilt shop or from a museum. Just be sure you share it with as many people, guilds, neighbors, townspeople, church groups as you can. It is a wonderful production that will entertain, inform and enrich anyone who appreciates something truly beautiful.
Quilts really matter to me. I’ve given up more financially rewarding job opportunities to do what I do. I don’t want to burn out for a corporation. I don’t want to come home exhausted to benefit a bunch of faceless stockholders. Don’t kid yourself – I come home burned out and exhausted all the time. My daily commute is a 100 mile round trip. The cost of gas is killing me. I do it because I want to be around this kind of art. I learn from my co-workers and visitors every day. I’m willing to do it as long as I can because I thrive on the emotion I have always felt when seeing a quilt for the first time. It never lessens. I have the curators trained to call me when they are opening boxes for the next exhibit. I want to be with them and see them first. When I go upstairs to open or close the galleries I have my own private time with the quilts and it just. fills. me. up. I am inspired, I feel creative, and I feel proud knowing I use my daytime hours to care for, promote and share this art. I can then go home and use my talents (and what I have learned at work) to create my own beautiful quilts.
Quilts have always mattered to me. From my earliest childhood I have always felt and known hand-made objects to give off a sort of emotion, energy, karma – I’m not sure what to call it. I feel it when I touch quilts made by others – especially old ones. They almost whisper to me. Willa Cather (another Nebraska girl) called it, “That irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by the human hand.” This quote says it best:
It took me more than twenty years, nearly twenty-five, I reckon, in the evenings after supper when the children were all put to bed. My whole life is in that quilt. It scares me sometimes when I look at it. All my joys and all my sorrows are stitched into those little pieces. When I was proud of the boys and when I was downright provoked and angry with them. When the girls annoyed me or when they gave me a warm feeling around my heart. And John, too. He was stitched into that quilt and all the thirty years we were married. Sometimes I loved him and sometimes I sat there hating him as I pieced the patches together. So they are all in that quilt, my hopes and fears, my joys and sorrows, my loves and hates. I tremble sometimes when I remember what that quilt knows about me.
Marguerite Ickis, quoting her great-grandmother in the book, Anonymous Was a Woman, 1979, Mirra Bank, St. Martin’s Press.