In the Province of Men

Man-Made Quilts: Civil War to the Present

Traditionally the textile art of quilting has been the province of women, whether fashioned as functional and decorative objects for home and family or—more and more in recent times—solely as pieces of art.  Male quilters have existed for centuries, but they have been very much a minority.  Now a diverse selection of quilts made by this minority is highlighted at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont in an exhibition entitled Man-Made Quilts: Civil War to the Present. Spanning the mid-19th century to today, the exhibition provides a variety of ingenious and handsome quilts made by boys and men of all ages and occupations, from soldiers to full-time textile artists, even a quilt made by Calvin Coolidge before he became President is included in the show's catalogue.
 
To viewers of this show, the final products give no indication of the sex of their creators, except perhaps in one case in which the focal item, a hammer, might traditionally be considered a subject of male interest. But often men's initial reasons for creating quilts are different from women's, and their approach is often different as well.  In the 19th century it seems that young boys and adult men often took up quilting as an alternative activity when confined by illness or recovering from an injury. Some men viewed quiltmaking as a challenge, hoping to win competitions or to break records by using the largest number or smallest size individual pieces, or created quilts to commemorate national celebrations. Some created quilts to protest personal or political issues.  As for their approach, men frequently come up with an idea, then study the techniques to execute it.  According to Shelburne Senior Curator Jean Burks, women tend to use a totally different method to men's "subject-first" approach, attempting first to master the requisite sewing, piecing and quilting skills before selecting a known pattern to execute.  Thus the show attempts "to reveal a distinctive male perspective and provide a non-traditional dimension to this textile world primarily inhabited by women."
 
"A Soldier's Quilt," (1854-1890), shows a type of bedcover also known as a military quilt, many found in Great Britain, made from wool fabric used for military uniforms. During this period soldiers were encouraged to take up needlework as a healthy alternative to drinking and gambling or as a form of therapy when injured in battle and recuperating.” "Civil War Soldiers", (1860-1870), a very large quilt, measuring 111 inches in height by 86 inches in width. An unusual piece made by a wounded, discharged Union soldier who took on the project to soothe his shattered nerves, depicts figures of armed soldiers on horseback and marching on foot, some being served refreshments by women. "Fourth of July-Opus 25, (1876 and 1976), also very large, is a quilt begun in 1876 by Alice Hegy of Carroll  County, Ohio to commemorate America's centennial, and finished 100 years later by  her grand-nephew Arnold Hegy Savage, of Lorain County, to observe the country's Bicentennial. 
 
Benjamin Franklin Perkins' "Bricklayer" quilt top from the 1840s was cut by Perkins, a Portland, Maine brick mason, street repairer and walk layer, so that the individual red and white cloth pieces resembled the size and shade and traditional herringbone paving pattern of his native town's sidewalk bricks.  Jewett Washington Curtis, born in Vermont and a career soldier in the US Military, made a quilt ca. 1895 in Alaska where he was stationed in the US Army.  Inspired by the Native American beadwork he saw while serving in two previous Indian engagements, he assembled almost 11,000 one-inch diamond-shaped, jewel-colored wool scraps thought to have come from  army uniforms, a tradition that appears to have originated in Great Britain.  Albert Small's "Hexagon Mosaic #3," (1940-44), was made as a response to a dare from his wife's quilting group after he teased them about their slow pace of weeks on one quilt.  This masterpiece contains over 123,000 pieces and took him 6,000 hours to complete.  His work was featured in  Ripley's Believe It or Not in 1951 and 50 years later was included in the publication "The Twentieth Century's Best American Quilts."  Ernest Haight of David City, Nebraska, pioneered the use of machine methods after responding to a challenge from his wife to piece a quilt top more exactly than she could,  and  in 1974 self-published "Practical Machine Quilting for the Homemaker," a book  that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. His  quilt in the show is "Falling Blocks," 1964.
 
Bill Huggins made his "Tea Bag Quilt" in 1975 when he was a graduate student at Southern Illinois University studying with textle artist Joan Lintault (subject of Hand/Eye article Sept. 1, 2011).  His classmates were giving up coffee for tea but he felt they were not disposing them properly, and also noticed that the tea bags were shriveling up in interesting ways. In order to make both a personal environmental statement and to highlight the used tea bags' artistic qualities, his quilt frames the bags behind clear plastic on the surface of the quilt and the border appears to be tea-stained.  In "Calypso," (2006), a tribute to the hard work involved in creating quilts, Fraser Smith of St. Petersburg, Florida presents a remarkably realistic woodcarving that from a few feet away resembles a quilt.  Although he does not carve exact replicas, Smith's carved and stained pieces gave an amazing illusion of  fabric.
 
In  "Air Show," (1992) by Jonathan Shannon of Phoenix, Arizona, traditional techniques are masterfully combined with modern, realistic imagery.  Striking images of early model airplanes were selected for their graphic design and strong nostalgic appeal.  A traditional medallion style is used, with the larger airplane in the center; a conventional pieced pinwheel border cleverly mimics the rotation of propeller blades. "Crystal Mountain," (1978), by Jeffrey Gutcheon of New York City, is the first quilt he made using his influential Diamond Patchwork technique that he invented, taught and about which he wrote.  It relates to subjects of Peter Matthiessen's best-selling book "The Snow Leopard."  About half the quilt remains blank white space, a very appealing design, but one which at first brought inquiries about when it would be finished.
 
Luke Haynes of San Francisco features an oversized replica of his own hammer in [Man Stuff#1] "Hammer," (2008), the first in his Man Stuff series.  The artist was inspired by Gustave  Caillebotte's "The Floor Scrapers" "with the perspective and the diagonal visual movement towards the lower right." He further explains that "the series is a testament to my place in the art world as a male making art with a process that has been dominated by women primarily as utility.  I wanted to show a 'Man' item in a way that illustrates the use of fabric and light and stitching as notations of an art piece."
 
Michael James has a long history of quiltmaking as an artistic process.  He was trained as a painter but started working with textiles deliberately as a reaction against his formal education where painting, sculpture and printmaking were considered the most important arts, and the rest viewed less seriously.  "I got tired of that attitude.  I fell in love with quilts and I thought I am in a woman's field, so either I go into some closet and keep it as a silent, private hobby that nobody knows about or I just treat it as a medium and work in it which is what I chose to do regardless of what anybody might think."  James has exhibited internationally and inspired a generation of male quilters to approach quiltmaking as art.
 
Arturo Alonzo Sandoval's unusual "Millenium Portal No. 1," (1993), is part of a series that explores apocalyptic prophecies by the Book of Revelatlions and by Nostradamus in the 16th century.  Constructed of high-tech material, the structure depicts planets as  seen from inside the window of a satellite, and to do so it actually slowly rotates from a motorized mount.  The artist explains that he wanted to convey a message of hope for humanity, and so his fiber artworks depict the universe replete with "intense color, light, pattern and texture."
 
John Lefelhocz of Athens, Ohio based his "Match Schticks," (2002) on a traditional double wedding ring quilt pattern but used non-traditional material such as printed paper bonded to nylon net, with extensive embellishment, including gemstone beads and over 3,000 kitchen matches to comment on the idea of "a match made in  heaven."  Lefelhocz states, "I think riffing on the  traditional is my favorite kind of cultural art."
 
Fourteen year-old Noah Patullo of Vermont made "Precisely Pinetrees," (2011), a miniature quilt consisting of a total of 2,170 pieces.  He was inspired by the work of miniature quilt expert George Siciliano, with whom he studied.  Sicilliano's quilt "Oh Wow! Miniature Quilt Collection, Small Medium at Large," (2007), perfectly represents his goal of making wall art rather than bedding.
 
Man-Made Quilts: Civil War to the Present, Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont, through October 28, 2012. An illustrated catalogue with an essay by quilter and scholar Joe Cunningham accompanies the exhibition. For more information, please visit www.shelburnemuseum.org.

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