Today’s New York Times ran an a wonderful article, Folk Art Paradise Springs Back to Life, on the Shelburne Museum which the writer, Grace Glueck calls “the most awesome folk art phenomenon in the United States.” It is an amazing phenomenon for a museum based in Shelburne, VT. to receive such an accolade. Personally, I feel cheated that I’d never heard of this place until now and I want to visit it as soon as I can. It will be on the list for my next trip to visit family in New York.
Folk art in general and quiltmaking in particular have long held great interest for me. I’ve seen museum quilt exhibits at the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the American Folk Art Museum; I’ve seen exquisite quilts displayed at flea markets, in a folk arts center in the Great Smoky Mountains, and in historic homes. Looking at the best quilts makes you feel that one of the highest callings that one could have in life would be to be privileged to own and display some of them. In fact, my wife’s grandmother, a Hungarian immigrant who arrived here at the turn of the century, created a remarkable quilt which hangs above our staircase. She not only quilted the fabric, she also did all of the embroidery stitching as well–the entire quilt was made by her hand, something that is rare in quiltmaking today.
What makes quilts memorable is that they are tangible manifestations of human emotion. Quilts are made to mark momentous occasions in life: births, weddings, etc. A woman (or man) invests the height of their creativity in connecting the event with their emotional response via the quiltmaking process. When you see a quilt, you glimpse an internal emotional response to a milestone event in someone’s life.
The most touching thing that a former girlfriend ever did for me was to begin a quilt after we started living together. She did this because she knew how much quilts meant to me. For her, it was an earnest expression of her hope for domestic bliss. At the beginning, we were going to create the quilt together. But she quickly decided that my sewing and cutting skills weren’t up to the task and she was probably right. Unfortunately, as our relationship foundered her commitment to the quilt dampened. Despite the fact that the quilt was never completed and the relationship ended, the thought that someone wanted to honor and please me with a quilt filled me with awe and gratitude.
Quiltmaking and folk art in general are pure expressions of the emotions of ordinary people, not the elegant, refined notions of professionally trained artists. This is part of their special power and meaning for those who appreciate the form.