Quilts and Culture: The uniquely American story of the Renwick Gallery Collection
By Jaimianne Jacobin
In many ways, the Renwick Gallery is the craft museum of the United States, located across from the White House in the national capital. The gallery opened its doors in 1972, just three years after the hallmark traveling exhibition of fine craft Objects USA debuted in Washington, DC. Lloyd Herman served as the founding director of the building “dedicated to art,” as self-proclaimed by the etched insignia located above the front steps of the building. The Renwick’s collection is separate but shared with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and together, they hold almost forty art quilts that tell a uniquely American story.
In addition to contemporary works, there are approximately seventy unidentified early folk-art quilts in the collections. Melrose Quilt (1960), a pictorial piece by Clementine Hunter, is arguably one of the earliest “art quilts” that bridges the distinction of folk and fine art. Hunter was a cotton picker and self-taught artist at Melrose Plantation in Louisiana, a mecca for freed black artists and writers. Her paintings and quilts document her experience and authenticate her as the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
The earliest quilt exhibition at the Renwick Gallery, American Pieced Quilts (1972), was curated by Johnathan Holstein, curator of the pivotal exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971. Holstein would go on to inspire quilt artist Michael James, a pioneer of the early Art Quilt Movement, and author of the book The Quiltmaker’s Handbook: A Guide to Design and Construction. His piece, Quilt #150: Rehoboth Meander (1993), in the collection was a period in the artist’s work when he was moving away from the traditional grid format and exploring his intuition in design, color, and shape.
Nancy Crow, a co-founder of Quilt National, Quilt Surface Design Symposium, and a leading figure in the development of the art quilt movement since the 1970s, was the first to premiere a solo exhibition of art quilts at the Renwick Gallery in 1995. The exhibit titled Nancy Crow: Improvisational Quilts included 40 works and had an accompanying catalog. Her piece Crucifixion (1977), was later acquired in 2002 by the gallery (not pictured).
It was not until 1986 that The Art Quilt, a traveling exhibition, officially coined the term for this art form. Joan Schulze was one of the artists included in the show. Her work in the Renwick collection, The Crossing (1990), was painted, pieced, appliquéd, and machine quilted with stitched calligraphy. Art quilts in the 1980s were defined by the proliferation of new ideas, experimentation, and a new perspective. Carolyn Mazloomi famously founded the Women of Color Quilter’s Network in 1986. Her work The Family Embraces (1997) meticulously stitches just one of her many narratives of African American heritage. In 1989, Yvonne Porcella founded Studio Art Quilt Associates. The first art quilt she created, Takoage (1980), inspired by the artists and energy of the West Coast art quilt community, now resides in the Renwick collection.
The 1990s were an exciting decade for art quilts at the Renwick Gallery. In 1995, Full Deck: Art Quilts exhibited at the Renwick Gallery and included fifty four quilted “playing cards.” The traveling show was organized by SITES, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and conceived by quilt artist Sue Pierce. In part because of the accessible subject matter and because of the popularity of quilting, the exhibition was a blockbuster show, drawing huge crowds and traveling across the United States for almost two decades.
Quilts acquired at this time portray sociopolitical issues through the lens of the artist. One example is ¡Guerra! by Arturo Alonzo Sandoval, a Hispanic and Native-American artist, who served in the Vietnam War. His piece depicts the American flag in blood red and includes a mesh containing hundreds of plastic skeletons. The words “500 años ¿De Que?” or “500 Years, Of What” are stitched across the front with “war” printed in Spanish. Another piece, Virgen de los Caminos or Virgin of the Highways is a heartbreaking piece by Chicana artist, Consuelo Jiménez Underwood. In her work, the Virgin Mary stands dead in the center of the quilt, with barbed wire embroidered across it. Quilted in the background is a depiction of a freeway crossing sign like those erected to prevent[JA1] people killed by cars crossing the Mexican-American border.
Recent acquisitions address topics of gun violence, the recession, and gender stereotypes. One of the most recent quilt acquisitions was Washington, D.C. Foreclosure Quilt (2015) by Kathryn Clark. Clark began to make her Foreclosure Quilts in 2007 to document the effects of the economic recession on the American landscape. By 2015, the mortgage crisis had faded from the news despite the ongoing distress of many homeowners, and Clark crafted this piece to keep the tragedy in the public eye. Another more recent acquisition is 2:45 am Until Sunrise on Tet, the Lunar New Year, January 31, 1968, U.S. Embassy, Saigon, Vietnam (Looking North) (2006) by Anna Von Mertens (not pictured). This is one in a series depicting the night sky, with this piece showing the starscape from when the Tet Offensive began (a series of attacks in South Vietnam by North Vietnam aimed to encourage rebellion and sway the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War). Von Mertens reminds us that the shared experience of viewing the night sky is a moment and time in history unifying us all as humans.
By following the Renwick’s art quilt collection, we see a story outlining two narratives. One account is about the history of the Art Quilt Movement. The other is individual American histories of trials and triumphs as uniquely told through the quilts. Together, these narratives form a diverse collection presenting a distinctly American view of contemporary culture through the artworks of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Art Museum.
1. Joan Schulze, The Crossing, 1990, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Penny Nii and Edward A. Feigenbaum, 1997.1
2. Kathryn Clark, Washington, D.C. Foreclosure Quilt, 2015, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Stephen D. Thurston Memorial Fund, 2015.40
3. Yvonne Porcella, Takoage, 1980, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 1995.15
4. Arturo Alonzo Sandoval, ¡Guerra!, 1992, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Renwick Alliance, 1999.42
5. Consuelo Jiménez Underwood, Virgen de los Caminos, 1994, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1996.77