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A quilt is a highly functional object - its purpose is to keep its user warm. It can be an economical object as well - quilts are often made of old scraps of clothing or other material. It can also be a decorative object - quilts can be pieced or appliqued with different colored materials, or stitched in a number of ways. And it can be a sentimental object, linking long separated friends or past generations to its user.
The quilts in this exhibit were photographed in the early 1980s in two communities in southern Arizona. Three come from the Mormon community of St. David, on the San Pedro River just south of Benson. They all adhere to what one might call an European-American quilting aesthetic. The designs, whether overall or repeated, are fairly complex. The colors are cheerful, but not too bright or contrasty. Most importantly, the designs "come out." Blocks are repeated fairly exactly, units are symmetrical, and everything shows evidence of a tight, rational control.
Quilt making is a culturally important activity for Mormon women. It permits the homemaker to create useful and beautiful object for domestic use, and allows older women to stress the importance of family by making quilts for children, grandchildren, and other family members. It permits generations of women to work together on constructive projects. Finally, the act of quilting honors those pioneer Mormons who came into a desert land and, by their strict economies and hard work, succeeded in establishing farming communities.
Quilts made in the small African-American community of Randolph, outside of Coolidge in Pinal County, on the other hand, show few of the characteristics I listed as European-American. Colors are frequently bright, with high contrast. Designs may be quite large and simple. Most strikingly, control does not seem to be an important characteristic for the quilter to display. Better said, there is indeed control, but it is demonstrated in an unusual way, by allowing a note of unpredictability to creep into the finished work. Thus Mrs. Muldrow's quilt with the squares seems to concentrate on playing variations on a stated theme, just as a jazz or blues musician would. To make things more complex, the variations are not only in terms of color, but degree of color contrast. Her other quilt, the "string quilt," sets up a pattern of high contrast between the top material and the knot yarn, only to occasionally break it by having both panel and knot of the same color!
It is this playfulness, this sense of improvisation, which distinguishes many African-American quilts, and might well tie them to a West African aesthetic sense, passed down over the generations. It certainly makes the quilts difficult to appreciate for some raised in other traditions. I remember attending an exhibition of African-American quilts (including Mrs. Muldrow's "string" quilt and Mrs. Mathis' "Light and Shade" quilt) in the State Capitol Building in Phoenix, and watching two elderly Anglo-American women, obviously practiced quilters, walk up and examine the quilts from a few inches away. Finally one turned to the other and said "They may call it art if they want to, but as far as I'm concerned, that woman don't know how to piece and she don't know how to quilt." And, from the standpoint of her particular set of cultural aesthetic values, she was absolutely right.
However, each culture gets to set its own standards - to "write its own rule book," as it were, and one of the exciting things about studying folk art is the opportunity to encounter a wide range of different rules for what might on the surface seem to be the same game. This is certainly evident in the case of Anglo- and African-American quilting in Arizona.
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