Posted June 7, 2019
On Tuesday, May 28th, the Bicentennial Commission visited the Jemison-Carnegie Heritage Hall Museum in Talladega to see the exhibit “Celebrating Alabama Heritage, Quilt Stories.” The building itself is the former Jemison-Carnegie Public Library, built in 1908. Designed in the Beaux Arts Classic style, entering is a real treat. The ceilings soar to 18 feet, perfect for presenting the colorful and engaging quilt exhibit. All around us colors popped and patterns swirled. It would have been easy to lose our bearings had we not been greeted by Valerie White, Museum Director and one of our guides for the afternoon. Valerie greeted us warmly and ushered us into the tranquil halls of the museum. It was immediately apparent that we weren’t just going to be looking at quilts on a wall. Rather, as we would learn, the fabric displayed was made up of fashion iconography, subtle political commentary, folk beliefs, hard work, recycling, modern sensibilities stitched with traditional technique, community, deep skill and, above all, love.
The exhibit is the product of a large collaborative effort. It was made possible through the generous contributions and participation of the following sponsors: Alabama State Council on the Arts, Alabama Humanities Foundation, the City of Talladega and the Heritage Commission, First Bank of Alabama, Jemison Carnegie Foundation, Talladega County Volunteer Program, Talladega Pilgrimage Council, Special Friends of the Museum, Brannon’s Office City, Mary Anne Crowe Framing, Steve Garst Studio, Nikki Baker Graphics and Photography, the Historic Ritz Theatre, Museum Volunteers and the Service Guild.
Shortly into our tour, Sarah Bliss Wright arrived. Sarah, an Alabama Humanities Foundation Road Scholar, quilt historian, and performance artist, is originally from Talladega and curated the exhibit. Sarah’s enthusiasm for the topic was apparent as she and Valerie fell into an easy and animated rhythm, taking us into quilt culture. Their partnership is representative of the community engagement the museum seeks to accomplish. Emblematic of this cooperative effort is the generosity of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Birmingham Museum of Art, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and Alabamians willing to share their families’ quilts and stories, all of whom made this exhibit possible.
One piece was emblematic of the community’s connection to quilting and land. Entitled the Mt. Ida Wedding Quilt, it was pieced by twelve female relatives in 1851 to celebrate the union of Virginia Mallory and James Welch on November 10th of that year. Its stitching of the floral designs is intricate, as is the clamshell quilting pattern. 163 years later, Sarah coordinated the efforts of twelve 21st century women who live in the same area as the original quilters to recreate the quilt for a contest by the American Quilt Study Group. “I’m emotionally involved in this one because I got these women together to recreate this quilt and learn more about the quilt makers. Each of the original twelve women moved to Talladega County when it was brand new. As soon as this territory became part of the State of Alabama, around 1834, these families came down and claimed their land. They owned contiguous plantations and by the time this quilt was made in 1851 the families had become successful. It speaks of success, but 15 years afterwards, following the Civil War, many of these families had moved somewhere else because there was no more opportunity in Talladega County.”
This type of direct connection to land and people was the main inspiration behind the exhibit. Sarah commented “we knew what we didn’t want it to be. We didn’t want it to be just quilts hanging on a wall. We wanted the exhibit to delve into the history of quilt makers and quilts, so as to tell stories. We wanted it to be about people - Alabama women and families. The exhibit is an opportunity to glimpse history through the medium of quilt art during the Bicentennial.” Valerie added, “Celebration of Heritage can be a complicated subject in Alabama, for many reasons. But everyone, regardless of family background, culture, race, or religion, has a quilt story that brings back memories. And sharing these with one another can help us relate with one another, a first step in understanding and celebrating our differences.
The quilts themselves spanned a range of styles. Some used what might be considered traditional patterns, while others presented a modern side. One, entitled Strong by Loretta Pettway Bennett, creates an almost 3-dimensional effect, whereby looking at the red, blue, and black almost feels like peering down a mine shaft, or up into the rafters of a peaked roof, perhaps of an old church steeple. The cloth itself came from blue jeans worn by Loretta’s husband and sons. She comes from the unique and powerful quilting tradition of Gee’s Bend, one of the few in Alabama that is distinctly its own. As Sarah said, “Gee’s Bend is special because it was so isolated geographically. It developed its own quilting style, its own way. Everywhere else in the state, folks would find patterns in magazines or would share patterns. There isn’t really anything else that can be looked at and said THIS is from Alabama.” Loretta’s quilting has expanded beyond the boundaries of Gee’s Bend, even as she honors what she learned from her mother Quinnie. “Loretta wanted to be the next generation of Gee’s Bend quilters. This piece hearkens to her roots but gets into a contemporary feeling. Gee’s Bend isn’t only about old quilts; the tradition evolves and is carried forward.” Further on, a small quilted piece emphasizes her comment. It’s by Dushayn Smith, one of Mary Ann Pettway’s grandsons, who is taking up quilting in the Gee’s Bend tradition.
While quilting is alive and well today, it did have a lull. Sarah spoke on its place in the art world. “There was a time when people used quilts not only for bedding but, sadly, for packing and dog beds. Admit it. We all did it. During the 60s, 70s, and even into the 80s, grandma’s quilts were often relegated to a closet. Suddenly in the late 80s and early 90s, a revival began, but quilting had changed from a utilitarian craft to art, a form of folk art. Young people are taking up quilting because it’s a wonderful means of self-expression. Men and women will take a pattern but put their own work into it, their own meaning.” Valerie added to this, saying “I didn’t know very much about quilts. Of course, we had my grandmother’s quilts growing up, but it’s an art form that didn’t know it was art until it became art. Quilting flows through every aspect of life and, because of everything it represents, is very emotional and meaningful. To bring out that aspect was very important to us as we prepared the exhibit.”
Quilting may have only recently gained status as art, but it has always included innovation, creativity, community, and resourcefulness, as Valerie explained. “It was a mode of communication. People would sit together and visit and quilt. It was something practical that kept you busy, brought your friends together, created community.” Recycling is an essential part of the tradition, born of necessity and bearing patterns that are always unique depending on who sews them and where they come from. For example, a woman in Fort Payne, the self-proclaimed sock capital of the world, produced quilts made of sock tops. Valerie said, “I’m so grateful that Sarah included this example. Just like many textile mills went out of business around here, so did the sock factories in Ft Payne. But, as one example of innovation, Gina Locklear, whose parents owned a sock mill, returned home and retooled her family’s business in Ft. Payne to leverage her heritage and create an ongoing business. She is now producing high-end, organic socks with her company Zkano.”
Another example of recycling was colorfully represented in quilts made in the 1930s and 40s from cotton feed sacks and flour sacks. Who would have thought that such beautiful printed fabrics could have started out as packaging for food products? Sarah, an expert on Bemis Bros. Bag Company and its inadvertent contribution to American quilt history through its cotton bags, explained. “Alabama cotton, through Bemis bags, made its way into quilts all over the nation because of the resourcefulness of women who re-purposed the beautiful, high-quality cotton bag fabric into clothing and quilts.”
Some of the materials used bring a smile to our faces. Quilting is about joy, after all! Both our hosts chuckled at a quilt that Sarah described as “crunchy.” It’s comprised of scraps of polyester, straight out of the seventies, and recalled “the gentleman who wore the light blue leisure suit all summer long. In Alabama, even polyester has a place in this tradition.”
In case you didn’t know, Alabama’s official quilt pattern is called a Pine Burr, which makes sense for a state as timber-rich as ours. One of the examples included in the exhibit was made by Mollie Minter, who came from an English and Cherokee background. The actual quilt she made was comprised of so much material that it took two people to cart it around. Sarah commented that “one of the things we wanted to show is that quilting was done by everybody; black, white, rich, poor, northern, or southern, everybody quilted. The Pine Burr pattern is generally thought to be an African-American design but here is a woman of white and American Indian descent who used the same pattern.” There are obviously many threads that compose the tapestry of Alabama quilt art.
This exhibit, and quilting in general, encourages public engagement with history in a unique way. As Valerie explained, “the importance of this exhibit is the stories behind the quilts that can draw people in. We’ve had people from all over Alabama come visit. For example, Sarah brought in an 89 year old gentleman whose mother had created the crazy quilt included in the exhibit. This was the first time he had seen it displayed and his reaction was quite touching. It is energizing to people to see that their family quilts are so important and special. It makes them feel good and they want to go back home and research a little bit more because someone cared about their family’s history. Quilting is a celebration and sparks joy.”
The conversation continued, weaving through stories of surrounded generals, doting sisters, and women’s suffrage. One anecdote highlights the success of the exhibit. A quilt that the Birmingham Museum of Art has in their collection was made on Germany Mountain in Talladega County. However, the only information the museum had was that a gentleman by the name of Afton Germany had made the quilt and that he was from the Talladega area. After a few dead ends, Valerie managed to find a descendant of Mr. Germany, who filled in the gaps and provided the personal background that will be shared with the Birmingham Museum.
Quilting has a unique ability to extend to and encapsulate a myriad of elements. Art, history, culture, community, commerce and economic sensibilities are quite literally joined with creative founts. But at the same time, it is not always necessary to consider the grand implications of its stitches. A quilt, at its core, is comforting, pleasing to look at, and, as any quilter will tell you, made with love. As Valerie put it, “it’s good to show good things, beautiful art, and celebrate the moment. To focus on the beauty and the capability of people.”