If you see a woman named Martie Lopez wandering through the gallery at the “American Quilts: The Democratic Art” exhibit at the Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building, be sure to call her over for a moment or two.
The volunteer docent, who was on the clock when I stopped by for a look at the exhibit last week, seems to have a wealth of information at the ready.
In addition to being able to point to just about any of the 30 quilts on display and talk about them in detail—whether they were made in 1780 or 2007, the years the exhibit spans—Lopez can also give a firsthand account of the work of Jean Ray Laury, one of the artists whose work is on display.
Lopez reports she took a class from the contemporary quilt maker years ago, after Laury’s work had been recognized as being both fresh and innovative in the wide world of quilting.
“Tom’s Quilt,” which is on display at the museum, was the first quilt Laury ever made. She used a patchwork approach, but added appliqué designs of blocks of all sizes and shapes. Befitting a gift for a child (hence the quilt’s moniker) there are designs containing everything from ice cream to chickens, clowns, flowers, kids on a school bus and lollipops.
“She told us to make your quilt what you want it to be,” Lopez says of her time with Laury (who died last year). “She also said, ‘if it needs a machine, use a machine.’”
Although we didn’t discuss each and every quilt on display—just the ones that were within our immediate field of vision—I’m certain Lopez could’ve pointed out what was interesting about each one.
Before she showed up, I’d been relying on the informative labels next to each quilt that described its origins, historical facts about the time period when it was made and the style in which it was created. In addition to being a history lesson of sorts, when combined with seeing the quilts in a gallery setting, the background details helped me realize how unique—and, in many cases, beautiful—each quilt was.
I learned that the floral-patterned “Whig Rose” appliqué style has often been associated with the American Whig party, which was formed by Republicans such as John Quincy Adams in the early 1830s, and that quilts made before and during the Civil War “reflect many of the passions and tensions of the times, as well as the complexity of relationships and social orders in both the North and South.”
I also discovered that quilts can convey emotions (sadness, joy, patriotism) and that the most interesting quilts weren’t necessarily the most technically perfect—such as the scrap quilts that used everything from worn-out clothing to empty flour and feed sacks in their creation.
“Hard-pressed women really did use every bit of material they could find to craft bedcovers for their families,” the liner notes on one scrap quilt read. “The everyday utilitarian quilts made from ‘scrappy’ materials were often quickly assembled and freely organized.”
Like many of the pieces on display, the creator of this particular quilt was unknown. Due to the nature of the art form, many quilts in the course of the past 200-plus years have been given away or changed hands so many times it’s impossible to find out with certainty who made it.
What I took away from “American Quilts” is that quilt-makers are storytellers of sorts, and that no two are quite the same.
One quote from the notes accompanying the quilts stuck with me, and I think it’s apt for describing the show as a whole.
“For Americans, quilts have always been more than bed coverings and more than works of art,” it read. “Quilts hold lives within them.”
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