Above: Maggy Rozycki Hiltner, Superfun(d) (2021), machine and handmade quilt, 96″ x 144″ x 1″
︎ The Carnegie Center for Art and History, New Albany
Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie
Kenneth L. Woods
Quilts have a long and storied history in America. From being used for warmth and covering, to decorations, quilts have covered the spectrum of usefulness. Quilts and quilting fall under the genre of fiber art. The Carnegie Center for Art and History’s Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie is one such exhibit that displays quilts, and has been doing so since 2004. This annual show has been heralded as one of the premier exhibitions of contemporary quilt art in the nation.
One of the first things I noticed is that some of these “quilts” didn't look like quilts as I imagined in my mind. Some were in geometric shapes that resembled three-dimensional sculptures rather than the traditional two-dimensional spaces that quilts naturally occupy. Michele Pollock’s Against Forgetting What Has Been Lost (2021) falls under the former category. This quilt was inspired from her time living in the woods. Ever since 2008, she’s been fascinated with the forest floor and this piece highlights that love. A mixture of machine-assisted quilting, hand quilting, and hand embroidery to create a three-dimensional quilt that looks like a log with mushrooms, moss, and lichen which are reminiscent of the very substances she would find on her walks in the woods. Pollock’s work received Honorable Mention at the show.
This begs the question: “What is a quilt?” For this show, The Carnegie Center stated via their website that “all works must be quilted, meaning two or more distinct layers that are held together with stitches.” With this definition in mind, the possibilities are endless, and some artists pushed this definition of quilted to its limits. One such work was Shin-hee Chin’s Gold Robe (2020), which was given the Award of Excellence. This piece was produced from repurposed Korean durumagi, a traditional Korean garment that is used as outerwear. Chin seeks to reverse stereotypes assigned to Asian culture and restore dignity to Asian Americans. This particular work uses the color gold to reverse the connotation attached to yellow, which in this context is peril. The color yellow is often attached to Asian American skin, but according to Professor Michael Keevak, they were considered white until the end of the 18th century.1
Quilts used to be made out of necessity. If you wanted to keep warm, you would either make that covering or, alternatively, barter or purchase one. Quilting also became a way to make a living in times where women typically could not get jobs outside of the house. Quilts have gone from costing a few cents to hundreds and even thousands of dollars. With the validation of the fiber art within the art industry, one can only wonder what this means to the quiltmaker hobbyist at home.
At one point, there were quilt makers in my family. My father doesn’t know if there were any quilters on his side of the family. He remembers elderly women and friends of his grandparents who quilted, but no direct family members took part in this craft. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side, affectionately known as Big Ma, had family members in Georgia that quilted. When some of them migrated up to the Midwest, they brought their quilting with them. According to my mother, these were old-school patchwork quilts. They used worn-out clothing and materials and repurposed them into quilts that were worn for warmth, not decoration. During those times it was the function of the quilt that was dwelt upon and not necessarily its form. My mother still has one of the quilts that my grandmother used to sleep under. She asserts that she was told that those old quilts were so heavy that you couldn’t turn over underneath them. Quilting can be more than art, it can be heritage, as much a part of a person as their lineage. Unfortunately, it seems the quilting inheritance in my own family has died out. My mother also reminded me about a quilt that my grandfather, her biological father, used to own. Before he passed in 2010, my grandfather had cancer and there were volunteers who created quilts to lay in the lap of cancer patients. Apparently, my mother still has this quilt as well. She has a heart for crafting and is thinking about dabbling into quilting barnyard quilts. If she chooses to do so, she will be subconsciously continuing the tradition of quilting among the Black women in our family. These quilts have become treasures for her, on display for her eyes only, I’ve never even seen them.
As I stared at the installations throughout the Carnegie Center, I couldn’t help but think about the quilts in my own family. I wonder how much they would be worth? How is something like that determined? Is it based on who made it or how old the quilt was? My family's quilts probably wouldn’t be worth too much, since they were made out of common materials and their names aren’t notable in the art industry. I know that materials, the length of time involved in creating the work, and name recognition play a big part when price is concerned. This is one of the reasons why art purchased from Hobby Lobby or any other store is very cheap in comparison to art that is handcrafted by artists. Art that is easily mass-produced can’t compare in price to what an artist has created because that artist is usually creating one-of-a-kind work. One of the biggest factors that tie into the worth of a piece of art is the story that’s attached to it. The best example is The Reconciliation Quilt (1867) by Lucinda Ward Honstain. This work chronicled her life before, during, and right after the Civil War. This quilt was sold at an auction for $264,00.00 in 1991, making it the most expensive quilt of its time.2
I wonder if the elevation of quilt making into fine art will take away from its humble beginnings. Will the average quiltmaker become discouraged from quilting because they don’t know if their work will make it to a museum? Probably not, as there are a lot of craftspeople on Etsy who are buying and selling quilted goods. If anything, these sorts of art shows highlight this particular art form in a way that folks wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.
Quilts have a history of being used to display messages or bring attention to an issue of concern to the quilter. Quilts were used to help keep Union and Confederate soldiers warm during the Civil War. Before bedding and food were readily supplied by the military, it was up to the families, mainly women, to supply some of the more essential needs. Women on both sides of the war created networks to sew quilts to send to their loved ones on the front lines.3 Some were made for warmth, while others were auctioned off to raise funds for the war.3
It has been thought that some quilts contained secret messages that were used to aid slaves to escape on the Underground Railroad. Quilting patterns such as the “wagon wheel, “tumbling blocks,” and “bear’s paw” were said to be codes that gave instructions to runaway slaves.4 This train of thought first reached the public eye through the book Hidden in Plain View: A Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, written by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard and published in 1998.4 There is much debate about whether or not these codes were actually used, but I like to think they were. Oppression and a lack of resources tend to make one creative and innovative. As I wandered throughout the exhibit, I wondered if form would truly outweigh the function and was pleasantly surprised.
There was a huge piece (arguably the largest of the entire exhibition at 96” x 144” x 1”) contributed by Maggy Rozycki Hiltner that I felt still contributed to one of the functions associated with quiltmaking. Rozycki comes from a family of quilters and continues that tradition in grand fashion. Her piece Superfun(d) (2021) speaks to the presence of superfund locations within our country’s borders. Superfund sites are locations that have hazardous waste and have been designated by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) for cleanup; Superfund is also the informal name for CERCLA.5 Rozycki designed it to look like a sideshow carnival that looks bright and friendly from afar, but the truth of the piece doesn’t hit you until you draw close. This quilt is full of facts about America’s pollution sites and atrocious environmental acts of the past. Hiltner’s choice of colors helps to catch the viewer’s eye and draw it into the show that Rozycki is conducting.
Quilts have strong ties to the African American community. As I walked the exhibit, I wondered if any of these juried pieces were continuing that tradition. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. The work of New York-based artist Ellen Blaylock struck me in a most wonderful way. The River of Knowledge (2020) resonated with me as the only piece that had distinctly Black characters in the work. The river on the quilt seemed to flow from one of the figure’s hair. Seeing something that looked like me made me want to stand, stare at, and study the work.
According to the artwork description, Blaylock comes from a family of quilters and the reason she even started quilting two decades ago is because she was told by her aunt that someone had taken their family quilts. Blaylock feels a sense of urge and duty to continue to quilt in the African American tradition of quiltmaking which uses quilts to pass down stories and messages from her parents and other ancestors to hand down to the coming generation. This piece is part of an ongoing series titled: The Family Album: The Quilt Project, and it won the Marti Plager Memorial Award at this exhibit.
Going into this exhibit, I had little idea of what to expect. I thought that the walls would be lined with flat quilts and nothing else. I didn’t think I would be greeted with a three-dimensional quilted structure as soon as I entered the Carnegie Center for Art and History. One gets a preview of what quilting is and what it can be as these master artists show off the forms of quilting while not totally disregarding the functional aspect of their craft. Each piece has a story as does the artist who created them. Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie pays homage to the quiltmakers of the past while giving the viewer a glimpse of the future of fiber art.
- Michael Keevak, “The Chinese were white– until white men called them yellow,” South China Morning Post, 3 Feb 2019
- Rebecca Onion, “A Brooklyn Woman’s Colorful Quilt, Illustrating Her Experience of the Civil War,” Slate, The Vault, March 18 2014
- “Civil War Quilts: Support from the Homefront,” World Quilts: The American Story, accessed June 9,2022,http://worldquilts.quiltstudy.org/americanstory/engagement/sanitary
- Sarah Ives, “Did Quilts Hold Codes to the Underground Railroad?,”National Geographic, February 5 2004
- “What is Superfund?,” US EPA, accessed June 9, 2022, http://www.epa.gov/superfund/what-superfund
Published with support through the TAUNT First Byline Fellowship.
Kenneth L. Woods (he/him), AKA “KennyFresh,” is a spoken word artist, writer, poet and author. He’s been servicing both Indiana and Louisville, KY for the past decade. Kenneth partners with non-profit organizations, businesses, and individuals to use the gift of poetry and spoken word to help others creatively tell their stories. In his spare time, Kenneth enjoys reading, hanging out with his pet tarantula, listening to music, and photography.
Michele Pollock, Against Forgetting What Has Been Lost (2021), machine and hand quilted eco-dyed fabric, hand embroidery, 31″ x 12″ x 6″
Shin-hee Chin, Gold Robe (2020), repurposed Korean durumagi, quilted, stitched,
72″ x 72″ x .35″
72″ x 72″ x .35″
Ellen Blaylock, River of Knowledge (2020), quilt, hand painted silk, cotton, and non-woven, 46″ x 57″