Joanna S. Rose turned eighty this year. Her husband asked her what she wanted for her birthday. Her reply? "Something I've not seen before and something that would be a gift for New York City." Her birthday gift turned into a gift for all of us.
You may have read about this magical, awe-inspiring, astounding, breathtaking, exquisite quilt marvel and spectacle called "Infinite Variety" that was held at the Park Avenue Armory in NY last week. It was a display of Mrs. Rose's 650 red and white quilts that she has collected for 30 years. Although Mrs. Rose considers herself as having the "instincts of a treasure hunter, not a collector." Either way, her acquiring of these quilts was about the fun of the discovery, but also the pleasure it gave Mrs. Rose to know that the nineteenth-century women whose busy hands made the quilts, were letting their imaginations soar. And to see them displayed as they were gave a powerful suggestion that these quilts were indeed works of art.
Not only was the show mapped out in spirals, rings, and arcs, i found myself turning in circles as well—jaw hanging open in amazement. It was dark in the hall, but the quilts were lit up like stars in the night sky; twinkling and spiraling up in celestial beauty. One of the first quilts you set your eyes on when walking in the entry was this one:
Hypnotic, right? It pulls you right in. Into the center of the giant spiral where a circle of chairs were draped with quilts. This was to bring us back to the idea of a quilting bee or sewing circle where women would gather, talk, sew, talk some more and connect with each other through their common interest. Not unlike what is going on today in guilds and retreats and across great distances with the help of technology. I thought this was such a tender way to connect the past and present, and though the women who sat in those chairs are no longer here, their quilts and spirits are.
I think about this same kind of thing whenever i stand in front of a painting by Van Gogh or Matisse or any of my favorites. There is a magical thing that happens when you look for the artist's hand in their work and can see the energy in the stroke when their paintbrush was whisked over the canvas, or if the marks were made with care and precision. I like to get up close to look for these kinds of details. Not to mention that when standing there, looking at the colors or composition it's impossible not to think that Van Gogh probably stood in right around the same spot and proximity to the painting when he was creating it. So plant your feet and enjoy knowing that.
This kind of evidence and energy was palpable in these quilts as well. Though their creators are largely anonymous, doesn't matter. There were 125 quilts selected to be seen at eye-level...many for their incredible hand stitch-work. I looked at the quilt, but thought of the needle, the hands, and the intent for where the next stitch would come up or go down. Have i used the word "breathtaking" yet? Hmm..how about "astonishing"? You get the idea.
I had the pleasure and joy of walking through this show with Lissa, and together we stopped within earshot of a volunteer who was answering questions about the show. One of the most interesting things we learned is that red is the first color on the spectrum that a baby sees. Isn't that fascinating? Also, the popularity of red and white quilts was largely due to the colorfastness of Turkey red dyes. Most other color dyes used in the early 1800's would fade or run when washed. The red dye was made from the root of a plant called "madder" (its scientific name is Rubia Tinctorum, go figure! Rubia...ruby...red).
Other tidbits, i had a brief but happy little visit with Sandy Klop (American Jane) just before she and her sister hailed a cab to the airport. Get this! She was #37 on the list and already has her brand new iPad2!! Lucky lady. I also had a delightful lunch with Liesl and Lissa, and finally got to meet the Schnibble Queen, Carrie Nelson! She is such fun and if you're not familiar with her patterns, treat yourself and take a peek at Miss Rosie's Quilt Co.
It was a memorable day for so many reasons. If you're interested, there is an app you can download from iTunes that gives an overview of the whole exhibit. The information is provided by the American Folk Art Museum. Apparently research is underway to learn more about the specific quilts and a catalog is due to be published in the next year and a half. And the good news is that we heard that this show is supposed to go on tour! So it might end up somewhere near you. If it does, don't think twice. Just go.
Happy Birthday, Mrs. Rose!
(and thank you for sharing your gift)