Artisan, Artist, and the Spaces Between

Harriet Powers, Pictorial Quilt, 1895-1898. (Courtesy of MFA).

My mother laughed as she pointed at the quilt. In the center, a dog was doing its best to separate a man from his buttocks. I could imagine the tiny white hands of the woman who stitched the scene, maybe chuckling to herself as she worked. I could see the human unevenness in her landscape of miniscule stitches. Behind us, contemporary Black quilter Bisa Butler’s voice drifted out of a television screen and mingled with the hushed commentary of visitors discussing the name of this quilt block or the number of stitches per inch on that coverlet. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts was trying something new: Fabric of a Nation, their first exhibition of quilts. Its reception has been stupendous. Quilters were thrilled at the novel experience of seeing their work, or work like it, in an art museum. Yet the question remains: is a place for these fruits of domestic labor among fine art? 

Fabric of a Nation proposes that quilts are art, but the curators ultimately undermine their own argument. Because they are women’s work, domestic craft mediums have traditionally been excluded from the art world, which is maintained by male power. Revisionists like the curators of this exhibit argue that the definition of art should expand to include quilts. But in their conflation of designed works of domestic duty with art, they accidentally overshadow the women who harnessed that labor to create art, demonstrating a willful inability to discern what makes masterworks in this medium truly special. 

Many of the quilts my mother and I saw that day were examples of the skilled handiwork of wealthy women and their servants or slaves––beautifully designed and well-crafted, but artless. These women fulfilled the expectations of domestic labor set by their society; they were craftspeople. But some of the quilts transcended these expectations of craft to birth art. These quilts may not have had stitches as precise or materials as fine, but they had vision. Far from precisely stitched floral patterns––the fulfillment of a duty––the artistic quilts in the exhibit were elegies for a lost home, or the bittersweet memories of wartime. The women who made these quilts managed to reconstruct compulsory work into an opportunity for self-expression. They became artists.

Defining the unique force that separates art and craft is not a simple task. It is this tantalizing distinction that transforms the artist into a figure near-mythic in proportion. What is it about the artist that gives her the power to deviate from and transcend craft? There is something preternatural about her. She manages to elevate the real and ground the imagined. Her being is tripartite: she possesses a transcendent vision of the world, enough technique to execute her vision, and a determination to bring the vision into the world. 

In good art, these three parts are not necessarily created equal. While an artist’s technique does inform the quality of their work, art is more than anything about the transcendence of an artist’s idea and their determination to manifest it. A slim repertoire of techniques will not hold a true artist back for long: think of Harriet Powers’ Pictorial Quilt, one of the most iconic pieces of American folk art and the keystone of the exhibit. Pictorial Quilt uses graphic appliqué to represent fifteen scenes, juxtaposing biblical narrative with stories from Powers’ community. It is made up of simple piecing and applique techniques, which require some skill but are not complicated. Still, this does not diminish her mastery as an artist. Powers manages to convey her vision with immense clarity: a world of chaos, mediated by the unfailing presence of God. And it is clear she had to make it. The fifteen intricate blocks of Pictorial Quilt would have taken hundreds of hours to make. Powers did not stumble into Pictorial Quilt; she chose the work and kept choosing it for as long as she could. She and other quilt artists worked long hours through cold, candlelit nights punctuated by crying children and sleepless husbands. It would have been much easier to make an artless quilt, but they had a consuming need to bring their vision into the world.

Ultimately, the story of Pictorial Quilt exemplifies the fragility of the outsider artist. As a Black woman born into slavery who became a landowner after the Civil War, Harriet Powers was never considered an artist in her time. Still, when she first exhibited Pictorial Quilt, it was clear that her work was consequential. A wealthy white woman attempted to buy it, but Powers initially refused to sell. Years later, her hand was forced by her family’s poverty. Pictorial Quilt changed hands several times before becoming part of the Smithsonian Collection. As an outsider artist, Powers did not have the ability to oversee her work’s fate. The fact that the quilt survives is a miracle and a testament to Powers’ compelling artistry. 

In the exhibit, Powers’ quilt hangs on the back side of the wall displaying John Adams’ christening blanket. One work is craft-based, one is artistic; one maker held institutional power, and one maker had little but vision. I use Fabric of a Nation to remind us of the danger of concentrating our attention where power has already collected. Truly exceptional work often hides elsewhere. We will lose works of real importance if we rely on weak generalizations in a pseudo-progressive attempt at inclusion, and if we accept museums—sites of accumulated institutional power—as the sovereign arbiters of artistic value. At the same time, Fabric of a Nation is an example of the essential nature of keeping an open mind when we ask who can make art and what art can be. Powers’ quilt is more than an artifact; it deserves a permanent place among artistic works of its caliber. Had her quilt been recognized in its time, Powers could have emerged from poverty without losing her claim to her work, and continued her art for the rest of her life. As it is, she went unnoticed, and today we have only two examples of her vision. My mother and I stand facing the backside of the museum wall, where Pictorial Quilt and its brother Bible Quilt hang together, and for a moment we see the world through Powers’ eyes.

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