Skirball Exhibition: Quilts Tell the Story of America

The author’s great-great grandmother’s crazy quilt, early
20th century, Willmar, Minnesota.

Story and Photos:  LIBBY MOTIKA

Circling the News Contributor

My great-grandmother Dora Burdick’s crazy quilt commands a wall in my house like a stained-glass window, its luminous satin patches jigsawing around a central 5-point star.

On closer inspection, clues emerge that tell the story of the time when it was fabricated, over 100 years ago. One patch features an American Flag and a tribute to the soldiers who went off to war in 1918 that reads: “In Honor of Willmar Volunteers Co. ‘D.’ 5th Reg’m’t.”

Another fragment displays a ribbon celebrating the service club: “U.P.S.C.E. Willmar Minn. June 21-23, 1895.”

Not only do I marvel at the perfection of the decorative stitching connecting these luxurious fabrics, but I can also imagine what life was like for my relatives in Willmar, Minnesota over a century ago.

Quilts illustrate the story of America, chronicling family events, community pride, historical movements and the value of communal artistry.

The Skirball Cultural Center is highlighting five centuries of quilts, including some 50 textiles in the current exhibition, “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” on view through March 12, 2023.

While there are countless numbers of quilts still warming our sleep, decorating walls, or carefully stored away, this exhibition displays the artistry and vision of a diverse and often unrecognized group of creators. They include urban and rural makers and members of Black, Latinx, indigenous, Jewish, Asian American and LGBTQIA communities.

Organized in thematic sections, the show begins with six quilts that explore the question of what it means to be American. “Ellis Island,” created by the Hamish Amish quilters, depicts bewildered immigrants, their welcome portraits and meager possessions as they are processed to enter their new land.

Participating in American democracy also encouraged women seeking the vote to join the suffragist movement, a grass-root effort in state government houses to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

Hoosier Suffrage Quilt, before 1920, unidentified maker, active in Indiana.

“Hoosier Suffrage Quilt” bears the embroidered names of nearly 300 members of farming and working-class families from northwestern Indiana who contributed small donations to support the making of the quilt to be sold at auction. At the top of the quilt you can see the name of Susan B. Anthony, a tribute to the tireless suffrage leader.

“Conflict Without Resolution” features seven pieces that explore the Civil War and its aftermath and legacy—from the Jim Crow era to the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter protests.

In one startlingly beautiful quilt, Carolyn L. Mazloomi’s “Strange Fruit II,” depicts the nightmarish time in our nation’s history when black people were subjected to harassment by the Ku Klux Klan. Images of the Klan appear because they were at the center of cross burnings, intimidations and heinous crimes against Black people and the communities where they lived.

Mazloomi offers a visual encore to “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s signature song, which closed each of her performances for the last 20 years of her life.

“Strange Fruit II,” 2020, Carolyn L Mazloomi, American, active in
Ohio in 1948.

In the first half of the 20th century, quilting became accessible to a wider range of makers. Quilt guilds formed, patterns were published in newspapers and quilt making became a national pastime and cottage industry.

The “Double Wedding Ring” is one of the most enduring quilt patterns. Local stores and mail-order businesses made patterns and kits with precut pieces available to quilters across the country. The patterns were usually composed of pastel rings on a beige background.

But in this quilt (about 1940), the unidentified African American maker employed brightly colored rings and a purple background. The African American woman who sold the quilt at an antiques fair in Jefferson City, Missouri, said that it was made by her mother, but nothing more is known about her.

“Double Wedding Ring,” about 1940. Unidentified African
American maker, active in Missouri, 20th Century.

The collective impact of individuals responding to a worldwide pandemic is vividly assembled in two pieces in the exhibition. An interactive display of the AIDS quilt, which is now 54 tons and nearly 50,000 panels, allows visitors to search for names of afflicted friends and loved ones.

Reflecting the current Covid-19 pandemic, artist Caron Tabb has created the large-scale quilt “Fabric of Humanity—Repairing My World,” composed of materials that she collected from individuals around the world and assembled into a cohesive piece, underscoring the power of individuals connecting to create something meaningful. The back of the quilt features statements from contributors to the work that describe the meaning and intention behind the pieces and elements they provided.

The Skirball exhibition emphasizes the strength and beauty of coming together across differences, which is all the more relevant in today’s world.

“Our hope is that these exhibitions serve as springboards for visitors to connect with one another as well as with the incredible works on view,” said Museum Director Sheri Bernstein.

“Fabric of Humanity—Repairing My World,” 2020, Caron Tabb


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2 Responses to Skirball Exhibition: Quilts Tell the Story of America

  1. pepper says:

    Libby Motika’s story about American quilts was written with her usual grace and style. But, I was unprepared for the power of Strange Fruit II, and gasped at the horror it portrays. Please congratulate Libby on her excellent work. xxx Pepper

  2. Donna Vaccarino says:

    Beautiful and
    Deeply wrenching-
    Thank you Libby for bringing this to our attention-

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