|Inspiration in Washington D.C.
All I wanted was dinosaurs and quilts.
My husband Chris and I went to Washington D.C. last month on
vacation. We'd both been before, and visited all of the various monuments,
so this trip was all about the museums. Specifically, I wanted to spend
all of our time in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History
and National Museum of American History.
So with all of this
walking around museums planned, I suppose it was inevitable that I should
sprain my ankle the very first day, gawking as we passed the Supreme Court
No matter, there is plenty in D.C. to distract one from
such mundane concerns.
One of the first stops was the American
History Museum. After a strangely fascinating trip through the history of
computers, which I heartily recommend, we headed for the textiles exhibit
on the third floor.
On first sight, it was smaller than I expected.
The museum has a wonderful website, with an extensive online textiles
exhibit ( http://www.si.edu/nmah/ve/quilts/quilt.html
). From the number of items exhibited online, I'm afraid I expected a
larger physical exhibit.
Upon reflection, though, I decided this
was a pretty smart way to arrange things. Many more people get to see the
quilts on the website than could ever visit the museum. The items on
display in the museum can then be rotated from the entire collection, so
that no one piece is exposed the damaging lights (and camera flashes) for
too long of a time.
The museum exhibit made up in quality anything
it was missing in quantity, anyway. The very first piece I saw was the
"Pocahontas Quilt", an album quilt done by Pocahontas Virginia Gay, a 7th
generation descendant of the Native American princess Pocahontas. Each
block is appliqued and embroidered. Many feature historical figures such
as president Andrew Jackson or the original Pocahontas. Other show farm
animals, or puppies and kittens or birds. Some are simple, others have a
scrappy, crazy quality. One is a signature block, with a large cursive
embroidered "P. V. Gay". Altogether, it showcases a slice of American life
at the time.
There were also several more traditional quilts and
other needlework items on display. If you are in the D.C. area, you owe it
to yourself to pay the National Museum of American History a visit. You
may find specific inspiration for a project, or, like me, you may simply
be reminded of the historical context of whatever you're working on now.
If one of your quilts is on display in a museum one hundred years from
now, what will people see in it?
It turns out,
though, that the exhibit in the Museum of American History is only the
beginning of what Washington D.C. has to offer the visiting quilter. I
recommend the Museum of Natural History as a second stop.
of us draw on the natural world around us for quilting inspiration. It is
next to impossible for a quilter to walk away from the diversity of nature
gathered at the Smithsonian without a new idea or several.
first to the Hall of Dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are an odd obsession of mine. I
have to admit, I wasn't thinking of quilts at all when we arrived at the
Museum of Natural History.
After you explore the Hall of Dinosaurs,
though, if you walk upstairs, you find youself suddenly at the Hope
Diamond and the Hall of Gems. I guess I knew, intellectually, that
gemstones come in every color of the rainbow and every conceivable shape.
The Hall of Gems exhibit brings this point home in a new way.
found one idea there I think is pretty cool. There was a display case
highlighting the range of color in gemstones, and they had nearly
everything, from the brightest yellow sulfur to the deepest red ruby,
arranged according to color. So I said, "Wouldn't that make a great
quilt?" Whereupon my husband declared me a hopeless
Seriously, though, wouldn't it? It could be an album
quilt, with a different mineral in each square, arranged by color as they
were in the museum. Or maybe it should be a more abstract design, pulling
in the full range of both color and shape.
There were many moments
like that on this trip. If you ever feel the need for new inspiration, a
trip to the Smithsonian will probably cure your ills.
moment, the Smithsonian is also hosting a special exhibit at the Museum of
Natural History: "The Spirit of the Ainu". The Ainu are a Japanese people
from the far north, and the exhibit is full of fascinating information
about their history and culture.
There are also accomplished fabric artists among the Ainu. To begin
with, I was intrigued by the delicate ceremonial clothing. Then, I found
Noriko Kawamura's work. As the exhibit director, Kitty Dubreuil, says of
Kawamura, "she takes Ainu subject matter, already abstract, and pushes it
to the next dimension of abstraction and makes these incredibly stunning
and exciting wall hangings." If you like, you can read more of the
director's comments about the exhibit in "Ainu: The Anatomy of an Exhibit"
The Kawamura pieces caught my eye at once. The first is a
dramatic work in blues and reds. The effect is of a wave or an ocean
wrapping around a swirling ball of dancing fire. The other is displayed
among the carved wood pieces. It is itself reminiscent of carved wooden
columns, done in rougher fabrics in muted browns and blues. Both pieces
made me want to know more about the Ainu people. In addition, both
provided inspiration for what amazing things can be done with a wide range
of fabric types and colors.
Eventually, I thought I had reached the
limit of quilting in D.C. museums. I was worng, of course. I went with
Chris to the Library of Congress and to the Folger Library of Shakespeare.
Then we found our way to the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. In that
museum's gift shop I found a small holiday ornament. It's a cube, and on
each face is a reverse appliqued star. A small slip of paper with it
informed me that these ornaments are made by the Hmong hilltribes residing
in tree top villages in northern Thailand and in Laotian refugee camps.
Evidently they are renowned for their reverse applique and cross-stitch.
That's another thing I'm going to have to find out more about
The ornaments were lovely, and of course I had to buy one.
Chris and I had a rule on this trip, to cut down on baggage: only buy
items in gift shops that you can't find anywhere back home. So naturally,
as we sat down to rest outside the Sackler, I discovered that the
distributor of these ornaments is in St. Pete Beach, Florida - all of
about 10 miles from our home. Oh well, at least I know where to buy
All in all, our trip to Washington D.C. was fascinating and
fun. I found quilting all around me, and inspiration was around every
corner. I'm already looking for an excuse to go up there again