Thursday, September 15, 2011

From Hearts to Hands

I know that we are wrapping up the unit on folk knowledge, but I could not pass up this opportunity for a great post! Once a week I have an honors seminar where we listen to a lecture from different professors or professionals on campus about what they do. This week’s was from the Museum of Art’s curator and educator Lynda Palma. She talked about the main exhibit entitled “From Hearts to Hands”. Quilts hang in the museum made by a diverse group of African American quilters working in Alabama and its environs during the last half century.

These quilts are a perfect example of folk knowledge. All these women learned how to sew from their mothers who learned from their mothers. In addition to being passed down in families, there is a culture attached to this quilting. All the women get together to quilt and share stories. These quilts become precious heirlooms passed down from one generation to the next. Even as sewing machines have become popular, these women do all of the stitch-work by hand, using only the materials they have at their home. This makes the patterns spontaneous, asymmetric, and colorful. There is a rhythm throughout some of the designs, a syncopation where the 4th beat is stressed. This adds flavor and life to the quilts.
However, this flavor and life did not agree with everyone. As a museum educator, Palma invited to show the exhibit to the Utah Women’s Guild. At first, these women were not impressed by the unprofessional, off-putting quilts. The stitching was poor and the designs were unconventional. However, as Palma explained the ideas behind the quilts, the women learned the value of the quilts as pieces of art. They had to realize that mistakes have meaning; they add depth and character to an otherwise impersonal piece of art. They also had to acknowledge the beauty of the asymmetry and juxtaposition in the quilts. In essence, they had to redefine the word “art”.

This presentation struck a chord with me because of the sheer genius of these quilters. It’s true, the quilts were by no means perfect, but they were genuine and creative. And isn’t that what art is?


  1. Wow those quilts are amazing. Although I'm not a sewer myself, I can somewhat appreciate the amazing hardwork and skill that goes into these quilts because my mom is a very good quilter herself. She made me a lot of quilts growing up, including more recently two huge quilts with all of my t shirts from infancy through high school. I love these quilts not only because they are comfortable and warm at night, but because I know they came from a mom that loves me.

  2. Summer, thank you for this! It was one of those moments, sitting in class, when the thought hit, "WAIT! FOLK KNOWLEDGE - being passed down!?" :) Turns out, turns out, folk knowledge pops up very often. I think it's interesting that this quilters from Alabama, who have definitely been influenced by their heritage, have a singularly different quilting style from the women of the Utah Quilters, possibly influenced by pioneer-stock - Two different groups of quilters with different values in art, definitely.

  3. At first I was a little skeptical about you comparing sewing to music, but now that I think aobut it, they totally connect. This might not have been your intended meaning, but from I gathered, the part you said about mistakes adding meaning parallels music a lot. I know when I do a piano performance, I usually make one or two mistakes, but the difference is I decide to move on from them. I quickly recover and the audience never knows what happened.