Contemporary African American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

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Tucked into the heart of Alabama is the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and its stellar collection of Contemporary African American Quilts.

The collection focuses on two different types of quilts. First, there are pictorial quilts. These quilts tell a story and have more literal representation in their imagery; they are illustrative. Yvonne Wells is heavily showcased in the collection, with such powerful quilts as Civil Rights in the South III and Dove Descending.

 

Above: Mary Lucas (American, 1926–2009), Black Man and Flowers, ca. 1970–1980, cotton and cotton/polyester blend, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, Gift of Kempf Hogan, 2011.2

 

Second, the collection holds a number of geometric quilts – a variety of patterns and some examples many of us associate with Gees Bend quilts. But the MMFA collection is a lot more than Gees Bend.

Above: Roberta Jemison (American, born 1928), Tombstone Quilt, ca. 1994, polyester and cotton/polyester blend, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, Gift of Kempf Hogan, 2005.9.5

 

Indeed, contemporary African American quilts are much more than what we know of Gees Bend quilts. The MMFA collection has similar examples, yes, but you can no more define African American quilting with one collection of quilts than you can define modern with only one style.

Margaret Lynne Ausfeld, curator at MMFA, describes the links in the collection this way.

“Frankly I think that the reputations of the quilters in our collection outside of the Gees Bend ladies will only continue to grow over time," she says. "I'm happy that the Museum stepped outside of what could have been a comfort zone to assemble the now 68 works that make up this group.” 

The collection at MMFA started via a donation from Kempf Hogan, who started the collection from his home in Michigan. A collector of all things, he started collecting quilts in the late 1980s. Quoted in Just How I Picture It In My Mind, Hogan describes his draw to the quilts.

“To me they are the essence of humanity – handmade with lots of heart, spirit, humor, and humility. The quilts are created by women who are natural born artists with basic American values of freedom of expression and thrift in recycling and reusing materials.”

As his collection grew – with a focus on African American women quilters of Alabama – Hogan’s appreciation also grew.  In time he realized his collection was cohesive and too big for his own display and storage. That’s when, through donation and purchase, the MMFA came to own them. With subsequent additions the quilt collection now numbers 68 quilts.

Above: Bertha Robertson (American), Birds in Flight Variation, ca. 1950, cotton, cotton/polyester blend, and polyester, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, Gift of Kempf Hogan in honor of Mark M. Johnson, 2017.9

 

“With close to 70 works, the collection is highly representative of important quilters' works and offers a good variety of techniques, patterns, and spans of time," Ausfield says. "The quilts work within the context of our larger collection of works by Alabama self-taught artists, as well as forming a discreet collection of works by Alabamians that span the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.”

The quilts themselves are stunning. Let’s talk about geometric examples, in particular.

Many of us are familiar with the improv quilts of Gees Bend, many involving strips, stripes, and variations on a log cabin. They, of course, are much more than that single definition. These quilts are no different. There are commonalities in the collection that guide the viewer.

Housetop quilts are a variation on a log cabin, as are Pig Pen quilts, which may simply be regional names for the interpretation of the pattern. Think of one giant log cabin block. Strips may be pieced of various fabrics, or the quilt might be two colours. In the MMFA Collection, the quilts referred to as Pig Pen are made by contrasting two colours or fabrics in each concentric square, alternating a light and dark, for example.

Above: Catherine Somerville (American, 1870– active to ca. 1960), Log Cabin (Pig Pen Variation)/Checkerboard, ca. 1950–1960, cotton, cotton/polyester blend, and polyester, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, Association Purchase, 2004.21.19

 

There are also examples of log cabin blocks. Some on the small scale, with a repeated pattern or sashing. Some on the large scale, in what many associate with a Gees Bend style – a single large log cabin block, often made with logs added on opposing sides rather than all the way around.

 

Above: Mary Maxtion (American, 1924–2015), Hotel Window, ca. 1996, cotton, cotton/polyester blend, wool, and taffeta, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, Gift of Kempf Hogan in honor of Nadine and Walter Ludwig, 2004.20.4

Above: Loretta Pettway Bennett (American, born 1960), Strong, 2007–2008, cotton and cotton/polyester blend, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, Gift of the Cancer Wellness Foundation of Central Alabama by transfer; Gift of the artist and her husband, Lovett Bennett, in honor of Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, 2013.9

 

Stars are another common motif in the collection. Much like the log cabins, the stars vary from large 8 pointed stars – what many of us know as a Lone Star – to smaller, similar stars. The 8 pointed star and the many ways it can be made are represented throughout the collection.

Above: Nora Ezell (American, 1919–2007), Star Puzzle, 2001, cotton and cotton/polyester blend, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, Association Purchase, 2008.9.2

 

Everybody quilts are the most varied in the collection. Some might consider them sampler quilts. It is thought that that might also be small collections of test blocks. Regardless of the reason, they are believed to be called Everybody quilts because they have a bit of everything in them. The Everybody quilts in the collection find cohesion in colour schemes, sashing, or repeated elements.

Above: Addie Pelt (American, 1920–1999), Everybody Quilt, ca. 1988, cotton, cotton/polyester blend, and polyester, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, Association Purchase, 2004.21.17

 

There are also other quilts that don’t fit in to these general categories but are unique and striking.

Above: Jannie Avant (American, born 1921), Grandma’s Favorite Block, 1990, cotton/polyester blend, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, Gift of Kempf Hogan in honor of Malcolm and Julie Sutherland, 2004.20.1

Regardless of the style of the quilt, there is no denying that the quilts in the MMFA collection are bold. They all indicate a confidence in the quilt maker. It is easy to admire their colour combinations, creativity, and individuality.

While the quilts are all made by African American women, you cannot define these quilts as African American. That’s because there is no one style that defines African American quilts and quilters. As with all quilters, individuality shines through each quilt. Providing a focal point to their quilt collection both through Hogan’s initial collection and subsequent acquisitions puts the focus squarely on African American quilt makers of Alabama. A similar focus on the quilters of Michigan or Florida or Idaho would result in a totally different collection. This particular collection celebrates Alabama quilters in a way that only the MMFA can.

Ausfeld describes the collection in a way many modern quilters can understand personally.

“Their work is a great deal more eclectic, and more tightly aligned with the established traditions of pieced quilting in the South," she says. "However, many of them also 'modernized' their approaches—from the fabrics they utilized to the manner of piecing, the use of machine stitching, and their idiosyncratic assemblage of shapes and colours. Their works also read as modern variants on the traditions of their mothers and grandmothers.”

The collection can be viewed online at www.mmfa.org or in the book Just How I Picture It In My Mind (available through the museum).

This article was heavily influenced by the essays and collection photographs in the book as well as interviews with MMFA staff.