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No Two Alike: African-American Improvisational Quilts
The High Museum of Art, Folk Art and Photography Galleries
Atlanta, Georgia

This show, which is one of the most visually exciting and satisfying to come my way in a very long time, is one in which none of the quilters follow the "rules of modern quilting."

These quilts are not made with the latest high-grade cotton from Hoffman or Benartex. There are few points which match, and the quilting stitches are neither small nor uniform. The quilts are not symmetrical nor are their corners square. On the other end of the spectrum of modern quilting rules, these quilts have little surface embellishment -- no beads, buttons, paint or metallic thread.

These quilts come out of a very different tradition than what I sometimes call the "quilt shop syndrome," in which expectations of precision, neatness, and order prevail. As the show's title implies, these are quilts created out of the spontaneous impulses and found materials of African-American women (and men) whose credo is best summed up by one of their number, Laverne Brackens: "If you piece them all where they hit right together, every quilt you piece is going to look just alike, and if you twist it up a little bit you will make the quilt look different. I just like to take a simple quilt and give it a different look."

These quilts are all VERY different from what you might see at the average guild show, or in a national competition. Informed by a long folk tradition in which spontaneity and improvisation are valued, they make, and break, their own rules, and they convey a dazzling impression of color, texture, and luminescence.

The quilts, by 21 quiltmakers, are drawn from the folk art collection of scholar Eli Leon, and divided into four groups highlighting aspects of this tradition. The first group, entitled "Square Within a Square," focusses on this group's improvisational variations on a widely used quilt pattern, which includes the old favorite log cabin. "High Contrast," the second section, features mostly black and white quilts based in the African-American aesthetic notion of "showing up," i.e. standing out through the use of large patterns, bold colors, and strong contrasts. The third section features the quilts of a single African American improvisational quilter, Rosie Lee Tompkins, and the fourth the work of four generations of women in one quilting family.

I have now visited this quilt show twice, and will probably go back before it closes on February 1. The main impressions I bring away from it are its vitality and a quality of light that emanates from all of the quilts. This is no doubt due to the predominant use of bright, often primary, colors, and the variety of materials used in the quilts' making. If you examine these quilts closely you will see every possible kind of fabric in them, from velvet to satin to wool, even synthetic knits and corduroy, but very little cotton. One quilt, a brightly colored strip quilt by Sherry Byrd (b. 1951) is a ramshackle square-in-a-square variation made entirely of corduroy. This gives a unique texture to the surface and an extra dimension as the light plays along the ribs in the fabric, some of which is cut across the grain and some with it.

Despite the spontaneity stressed in this show, these quilters display that they are very much aware of traditional quilting patterns and very often they play off against them. Two of the most striking quilts are in the "High Contrast" section. Louisa Fight produced a very dramatic log cabin quilt made of only four VERY large blocks, in black and white with four small blue patches strategically placed at the center of each block. Minnie Lee Metcalf of Louisiana (b. 1912) also worked in black and white to produce a quilt with a large "love knot" design as its predominant medallion. The density of the design is augmented by very close quilting.

Another favorite of mine is a quilt by Arbie Williams (b. 1916) entitled "Banana Split." Done in bright yellow, red, blue, and white strips, it gives a very fresh twist to what is at base an Amish design.

The section of the show devoted to the work of four generations of quilters in a single family is striking both for the liveliness of the quilts and for the influences that play back and forth among the quilters. Gladys Henry, the matriarch of the family, died earlier this year at the age of 96, and the show is dedicated in her honor. Her daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter have learned from her relatively simple designs and each generation has seemed to get bolder in use of color and complexity of design. A 1993 untitled medallion quilt by Gladys's great-granddaughter Bara Byrd (b. 1976) is the boldest of the lot, making use of prints and solids in pink, blue, green, white, black, yellow and a spattering of other colors. This quilt, like most of this show, is both orderly and disorderly, unafraid to improvise on a basic geometric design and not worry too much about symmetry or uniformity.

My favorite part of this show is the gallery which features the work of a single quilter, Rosie Lee Tompkins of northern California. Rosie begins with an unexpected twist (something she specializes in), as the gallery text tells us her name is pseudonym, taken to protect her privacy. She puts aside the notion of artist as special individual and states that her quilt-making is a gift from God and a form of spiritual worship.

The title of the first of her quilts one encounters is "Half-Squares and Hit and Miss Variations," and it sums up her aesthetic quite nicely. Her multi-colored quilts give the impression of great complexity and variety, yet if you examine them closely they are made completely out of regular geometric shapes -- triangles, squares, parallelograms and rectangles. This quilt was made with leftovers from previous quilts, yet it has a remarkable unity. It is made almost entirely of velvet, irregularly pieced and wildly chaotic yet orderly at the same time. She has taken the regular forms of traditional quilting and through her "hit and miss" abandon made something entirely new and wonderful.

Another striking quilt is an untitled 1986 piece done in the "hit and miss" style, is a checkerboard done in deep greens and black. The checkerboard squares are all approximately but not perfectly the same size, and the irregularities this creates make the quilt feel like a live, writhing thing, inviting you to abandon yourself to its deep green mysteries. The light that comes off the velvet and satin surface makes it look almost like it's lit from behind.

Besides these luxurious fabrics, Rosie Lee Tompkins makes good creative use of wool, flannel, and even some fake fur pieces in various others of her quilts. In addition to her striking "hit and miss" aesthetic, she adapts other traditions from African-American quilting, particularly strip quilting. According to the museum text, this technique "alternates narrow unfigured strips with wider pieced strips. In Tompkins's hands the stripping changes directions as it moves from one section of the quilt to another. Such idiosyncratic constructions of miscellaneous patchwork are often called 'put-togethers.'"

Tompkins' strip-quilting technique is shown at its most dramatic in a 1985 piece called "String," a vertically stripped velvet quilt (the museum text makes note of the fact that Tompkins is allergic to velvet, but prefers it anyway) with a definite swing to the right as your eye flows from the top to the bottom of the quilt. The strips are pieced irregularly, of different widths and lengths and colors. Looking at this quilt you have something of the same feeling as watching a large river roll past you through the landscape. Light and motion are everywhere in these quilts.

The quilts in this show are hung beautifully, as you would expect of a major metropolitan art museum. Actually, this show is displayed at the High Museum's Folk Art and Photography outpost in the Georgia Pacific headquarters building on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. The galleries are roomy but not overwhelming, and the selection of quilts and their arrangement are done with great intelligence and grace.

The simple and simply-named techniques and attitudes -- "hit and miss," "put-together," "showing up" -- are expressive of a style of quilting not much seen in the quilting mainstream, but we could all learn something from them. We could learn that geometric shapes can be used in wildly assymetrical designs; we could learn that quilter's cotton, fresh from the bolt, is not the only material at hand; we could learn that the color palette is as large as the spectrum; we could learn that artistic order is not the same thing as neatness or regularity; we could learn that spontaneity is not synonymous with surface embellishment. I know having experienced this show that I will never look at quilting in quite the same way again.

See more of the "No Two Alike" show.
See more of Rosie Lee Tompkins work.


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