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A Quilting Sampler: Functional and Fancy

Posted on 19 July 2009

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The act of quilting represents a unique form of American folk art. As a purely utilitarian object, a quilt provides warmth and comfort to those for whom it is made. But a quilt is also an album of sorts, a form of storytelling that is often passed down to successive generations to commemorate monumental events or individuals in the life of a family or a culture.

This weekend, the Eastville Community Historical Society opens “From Functional to Fancy: An Eastville Quilt Sampler” a show curated by Patricia A. Turner, Ph.D. of University of California Davis, a former Eastville resident, and a 1973 graduate of Pierson High School. On view will be 14 quilts that illustrate the diversity of the African American quilting community.

“What I’m trying hard to do in the context of the Eastville House, which is a small space, is give the patrons a real view of the range of quilts,” explains Turner. “There are some that are completely utilitarian, and the quilters only used repurposed materials — leftover fabrics. They needed to be warm and are not as aesthetically appealing. Then there’s the middle category, these are quilters with a little more flexibility in their lives. They could purchase some materials, but didn’t consider themselves artists. These are nice quilts for company or a baby shower. ‘Company quilts’ I call them.”

The third category, notes Turner, encompasses quilts made by those who identify themselves as quilting artists. Among the work that will be on view in this show are quilts by established artists including Kyra Hick, Marion Coleman and Julia Vitero. A quilt by Dolores Vitero Presley of Oakland, California pays tribute to President Barack Obama and another by Riché Richardson, an Alabama native, was made in honor of the legendary entertainer and philanthropist Josephine Baker. That quilt comes complete with a three dimensional banana skirt and was exhibited this past winter in Paris as part of a traveling quilt exhibition.

When asked about the origins of African American portrait quilts – those that honor important cultural or historic figures — Turner says she has traced them back as far as the 1950s.

“There was an integrated study group in northern California,” she says. “Before Black History was commonly taught in schools, this group got together to teach themselves. They would assign readings every week. There was an artist in the group who said they should create a quilt for Frederick Douglas, the great abolitionist.”

That quilt ended up winning second place at the California State Fair that year. Important events and people have continued to capture the imagination of many African American quilters, and Turner is now on the lookout for quilts made in response to Hurricane Katrina.

“I saw one in Paris in January that was made by someone out of what she found in her house, which was water damaged,” explains Turner. “It was soiled and stained and showed the things that happened there.”

Turner is a folklorist who specializes in pieces made by African American artists. In her book “Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters” Turner profiles nine different African American quilt makers from around the country and also offers an academic study of issues surrounding quilting and what can be learned by studying quilters. While it’s generally assumed that most quilters have learned the skill from mothers and grandmothers, in fact, Turner says, that’s not always the case.

“I tried to pick quilters who maybe came to it from a different route — one woman in Alaska had a family who worked on the pipeline. She learned quilting from an integrated sewing group there, not her mom,” says Turner. “A lot of mothers didn’t pass it down. That was something I found — the notion of it skipping a generation. Our mother never taught us more than the basics of sewing or getting a button on. My sister who made a quilt to raffle at the Eastville exhibit didn’t quilt until she retired. She said ‘This is neat, I can do it.’”

“I did find a lot of women and men as well who learned the basics as a child,” adds Turner. “They may have grown up in the south and were part of the migration during and after W.W.II to urban areas in the north where they took different kinds of jobs. When they retired, they went back to certain things like quilting.”

Turner notes that quilt artist Kyra Hicks, an authority on the statistics, estimates there are 1.9 million African American quilters — that makes for a huge range in the age, influence and experience of those engaged in the craft.

“Part of what I wanted to show,” says Turner, “was how diverse they are.”

“From Functional to Fancy: A Eastville Quilt Sampler” opens with a reception from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 18 at the Eastville Heritage House, 139 Hampton Street (Route 114) at Liberty Street in Sag Harbor. The exhibit will be on view Saturdays and Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m. through August 9. In addition to the 14 quilts on display, a quilt created by Patricia Turner’s sister, Ruth Turner Carroll of Texas, will be raffled during the Eastville Community Historical Society’s annual fish fry on July 25 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Heritage House. On Friday, July 24 at 6 p.m., Patricia Turner will be at Canio’s Book (290 Main Street, Sag Harbor) to talk about “Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters.” For more information, call 725-4711.

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