A deep dive into the historic quilt exhibition at the Speed
By Sarah Carter Levitch
Photos provided by Speed Art Museum
Familial and nostalgic, quilts serve as versatile objects, simultaneously a blanket and a piece of art. Quilts provide more than just warmth, as evident from the quilts on display at the Speed Art Museum. Wrapped up in geographic, economic and social history, quilts can also teach us about the times of their origin, perhaps providing a fresh perspective and making us think in new ways. We spoke with Scott Erbes, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, to learn more about some of the quilts on display until July 10.
Tell me a little bit about the Pictures from Pieces exhibit.
This exhibition was built using ten recent gifts of nine American quilts and one England quilt from Eleanor Bingham Miller. Eleanor’s collection is primarily American, with a good number from Kentucky dating from the 1850s to 1965. She began collecting quilts, particularly Kentucky quilts, in the 1980s. That was inspired by the work she was doing with Shelly Zegart and others to establish what was called the Kentucky Quilt Project. This was a fieldwork program that sought to document Kentucky quilts. It was one of the first projects of its kind in the United States that became a model for other states to document textile histories.
What do quilts remind you of?
My mother made quilts, and from a curatorial perspective, quilts are a powerful memory object, particularly if you had a family member who made them, if you had them as a child, or if they were gifts as an adult. Quilts are approachable objects; everyone recognizes what a quilt is. Their association is tied up in memory and nostalgia. They’re also intimate objects in the sense that we climb underneath them when it gets cold.
Can you tell me more details about some of the quilts?
One non-Kentucky quilt was made in 1832 by a quilter named Hannah Huxley, who lived in Wilmington, Delaware. It’s a big quilt with the star of Bethlehem pattern. A beautiful object, but I’m always interested in how things connect to the broader social and economic histories. In the context of the 1830s, the case of a grand American quilt made with expensive cotton is that raw cotton was being grown, cultivated and harvested by enslaved Americans in the South. That cotton was being shipped to England, where it was made into a fabric imported back to the United States. There’s a hidden history of slavery and the international economies built around that when you see the object.
There’s a beautiful Kentucky-made quilt that we can connect with Virginia Mason Ivey. She lived in Logan County, Kentucky and never married, came from a reasonably well-to-do family and lived with at least one brother. She had the privilege of time and incredible artistic talent. The quilt we have on view was connected to a marriage near Henderson. From what I know, there was no connection between the bride and groom and Virginia Ivey, the quilter, so I wonder if she was doing this professionally and for her family. That wasn’t unusual in the early 19th century.
The third one is the latest from the exhibition, made in 1965 by Beatrice Pettway in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The Gee’s Bend quilting tradition is a remarkable one. This Black community emerged out of enslavement. There’s a history of quilt making that’s continued for generations up to the present. The community was intentionally economically isolated along the Alabama River. When you have a community practicing an artistic tradition in isolation, they develop a unique and distinctive aesthetic. One side of the quilt is made from recycled work clothes, which is practical, but there’s also an aspect of memory. The fabrics being used and memorialized connect to the people who wore those clothes. The other side of the quilt is this colorful, vibrant stripe pattern made from the mid-1960s corduroy with a red, orange and olive green palette. So you have this visually joyful face on one side, and then on the other with the work clothes, something that reads more introspective and pensive.
Speed Art Museum
2035 South Third St.
Louisville, KY 40208