Collected Treasures

Exhibit entrance featuring Firebird Kimono, 1984 by Yvonne Porcella

One of the things I love most about museums and their collections is their seemingly infinite capacity to surprise. Whether it’s discovering something about a specific object, or discovering the breadth of the collection itself, museums feed my unceasing desire to learn something new in a way nothing else can.

This is particularly true of the San Jose Quilt and Textile Museum’s (SJQTM) 35th Anniversary show, Collecting Treasures: Celebrating 35 Years which closes February 3. I had the good fortune to attend the museum’s anniversary party in November. I had been looking forward to the show ever since I had interviewed Curator Deborah Corsini and Executive Director Christine Jeffers for my review of High Fiber, and while I knew a little of what to expect, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer breadth of Collecting Treasures.

There are seventy-five works on display for this show including many of the SJQTM’s oldest quilts, dating from the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, as well as modern art quilts and textile pieces, pieces employing unique techniques, and the museum’s ethnographic dress and textiles collection.

              

Hazel Grant, Yo-Yo Coverlet, 1939              Maker Unknown, Field of Daisies, 1930 – 1945

Leading in to the main gallery, the entry hallway features quilts that showcase the types of techniques and texture that can be achieved through the quilting art. The Yo-Yo Coverlet, 1939, and Grape Vine Quilt, 1890 – 1915, especially caught my eye since I had never before seen quilts like them.Field of Daisies (above) was a personal favourite.

       

Maker Unknown, Grapevine Quilt, 1890 – 1915

The first pieces I noticed in the main gallery were a pair of quilts that I assumed were modern art pieces. I was wrong, they are definitely art quilts, but they are not contemporary. The two quilts, called Crazy Quilt, were made between 1884 and 1890 by Augusta Stewart West. The quilts are exquisite in their use of fabric and colour, using silk, satin, ribbons, yarn, and flour sacks to create a textile and fiber scrapbook.

Augusta Stewart West, Crazy Quilt, 1884 – 1890

In the same display space is an unfinished quilt that takes up the better part of an entire wall. At first I was delighted with its being unfinished because such objects are rarely seen in major exhibits, then reading the wall panel – and listening to Deborah’s tour of the exhibit – it was revealed that this quilt, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, 1840, was made by Mary Tayloe Lloyd Key, wife to Francis Scott Key. What’s more, the backing papers were cut from his letters to her – two art forms in one incredible museum piece. The wall panel also revealed that she had previously used his letters and poetry when they were courting as curling papers for her hair, apparently she was unimpressed by her husband’s literary prowess. Though the quilt is unfinished, it is, as the catalogue says, a testament to her skill as a quilt maker and is absolutely beautiful.

    

Mary Tayloe Lloyd Key, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, 1840

I spent a majority of my time in the gallery where the SJQTM’s ethnographic dress and textile collection were displayed. There are thirty four pieces to see, and yet the gallery space did not feel crowded. One of the largest object is the Yoruba Egungun, a costume used in ceremonial dances to honour deceased ancestors. Collections Manager Joyce Hulbert donned gloves and was able to show us the intricate work on the underside and in between the layers of the costume.

    

Egungun Ceremonial Garment, 1930 – 1980, Nigeria, Yoruba culture & Collections Manager, Joyce Hulbert explaining its construction.

The gallery is full of examples of the embroidered and dyed textiles arts from across the globe. A kimono and haori from Japan, as well as art pieces inspired by Japanese kimono, a Hmong skirt and vest featuring their beautiful embroidery are on one wall, on another wall South American hats are mounted next to an indigo-dyed textile from Nigeria, and a traditional Romanian dress. Along the back, Middle Eastern Bedouin and Yemeni garments are placed next to an Uzbekistani ikat-dyed coat. The effect iss to showcase the universality of textile arts, and to demonstrate the depth and breadth of the SJQTM’s collection. Despite so many different cultures and pieces in so small a space the display was far from overwhelming, it flowed well and created a dialogue between the various pieces. The overall impression was one of shared beauty across diverse cultures.

    

    

Judith Content, Chasm, 2006    Detail from Hmong (Meo) Vest, 1975 – 2000

The oldest quilts in the collection – most of them dating from the nineteenth century – are on display in the museum’s smaller exhibition space near the gift shop. These quilts serve to subtly demonstrate not only the historic significance of quilts, but the skills of the largely anonymous women who put the quilts together. As a novice seamstress, I was in awe of these quilters who were using white thread on white ground in the days before machine quilting. The theme for these quilts is the use of the colour red – featured in all of them – and the wall panel explored the colour choices and uses of the quilters of the nineteenth century, demonstrating the artistic process and methods used by quiltmakers long before the craft ceased to be a necessary way to keep warm.

The show is not populated with the merely historical or ethnographic works in the museum’s collection. Many of the pieces on display were modern, made with political or humorous intentions. One of curator Deborah Corsini’s favourite pieces is a series of comedic pairings called Odd Couples, made by Dorothy Vance in 2006. In different panels Vance uses quilting and appliqué to create portraits of Bob and Jacob Marley, Karl and Harpo Marx, Marilyn and James Monroe, Gray and Bette Davis, and others. A layered textile piece from 1984 by Bob Freimark pokes fun at the Cold War with its depiction of the Iron Curtain. Full Spectrum by Judith Larzelere, and Weep for the World by Mary Balzer Buskirk were two more of my favourites.

          

Judith Lazelere, Full Spectrum, 1993       Bob Freimark, The Iron Curtain, 1984

This was my first ever exhibit launch party, and I was delighted to find it so full of supporters and lovers of the textile arts. But what was most wonderful was leaving so inspired that I am attempting my very first quilt. Wish me luck!

The exhibit is on display until February 3, 2013. For those who can’t make it to San Jose, the catalogue is available for purchase online through the museum’s gift shop.

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